Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Raw thoughts unedited

We need trans-egoic leadership now more than ever. We're being led by people mostly (to different degrees) largely "stuck" in their egos - they don't want to/haven't evolved to that "level". They crave status, power, money, safety beliefs in having much much more than they need, and incomplete / sick self-esteems that "need" confirmation in status and material wealth and escape in sensuality.

Unfortunately, I believe that includes Obama, though I think he is closer to breaking through the "ego ceiling" than many, for one reason because, thankfully I imagine that even growing up now a guy of his age with superior intelligence has grown farther on the spiral of devlopment than I would have 10 years ago, but actually that's not true - I was higher because I was in the visionary late '60s early '70's sub-generation.

A close male relative of mine 20 years younger who is very bright was going to be a professor of art, but switched to law school and is a copyright lawyer now for big corporations, I believe, which I sort of understand, at least I understand the much more pay and opportunity angle, but he converted to Mormonism, which is mythic-membership, mythic/rational (borderline - "straddling"), at best.

Of course the choices on the Spiritual line for Westerners are New Age mishmash of religion and Spirituality, mythic Eastern religion, Eastern Spirituality, mythic Western religion, and little else - Integral Spirituality is in short shrift for the general populace, there are politically progressive rational Christian religious denominations but they are a small minority. My relative encountered the edge of secular culture, postmodern relativistic aperspectival pluralism, and, of course wasn't satisfied with the absurd+, in place of wholeness and Love and Light and Life.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I was astonished that I didn't know much at all about this

From "WEB OF DEBT" by Ellen Goodman

original site here



President Andrew Jackson called the banking cartel a "hydra-headed monster eating the flesh of the common man." New York Mayor John Hylan, writing in the 1920s, called it a "giant octopus" that "seizes in its long and powerful tentacles our executive officers, our legislative bodies, our schools, our courts, our newspapers, and every agency created for the public protection." The debt spider has devoured farms, homes and whole countries that have become trapped in its web. In a February 2005 article called "The Death of Banking," financial commentator Hans Schicht wrote:

The fact that the Banker is allowed to extend credit several times his own capital base and that the Banking Cartels, the Central Banks, are licensed to issue fresh paper money in exchange for treasury paper, [has] provided them with free lunch for eternity. . . . Through a network of anonymous financial spider webbing only a handful of global King Bankers own and control it all. . . . Everybody, people, enterprise, State and foreign countries, all have become slaves chained to the Banker's credit ropes.1

Schicht writes that he had an opportunity in his career to observe the wizards of finance as an insider at close range. The game has gotten so centralized and concentrated, he says, that the greater part of U.S. banking and enterprise is now under the control of a small inner circle of men. He calls the game "spider webbing." Its rules include:

* Making any concentration of wealth invisible.
* Exercising control through "leverage" – mergers, takeovers, chain share holdings where one company holds shares of other companies, conditions annexed to loans, and so forth.
* Exercising tight personal management and control, with a minimum of insiders and front-men who themselves have only partial knowledge of the game.

The late Dr. Carroll Quigley was a writer and professor of history at Georgetown University, where he was President Bill Clinton's mentor. Dr. Quigley wrote from personal knowledge of an elite clique of global financiers bent on controlling the world. Their aim, he said, was "nothing less than to create a world system of financial control in private hands able to dominate the political system of each country and the economy of the world as a whole." This system was "to be controlled in a feudalist fashion by the central banks of the world acting in concert, by secret agreements."2 He called this clique simply the "international bankers." Their essence was not race, religion or nationality but was just a passion for control over other humans. The key to their success was that they would control and manipulate the money system of a nation while letting it appear to be controlled by the government.

The international bankers have succeeded in doing more than just controlling the money supply. Today they actually create the money supply, while making it appear to be created by the government. This devious scheme was revealed by Sir Josiah Stamp, director of the Bank of England and the second richest man in Britain in the 1920s. Speaking at the University of Texas in 1927, he dropped this bombshell:

The modern banking system manufactures money out of nothing. The process is perhaps the most astounding piece of sleight of hand that was ever invented. Banking was conceived in inequity and born in sin . . . . Bankers own the earth. Take it away from them but leave them the power to create money, and, with a flick of a pen, they will create enough money to buy it back again. . . . Take this great power away from them and all great fortunes like mine will disappear, for then this would be a better and happier world to live in. . . . But, if you want to continue to be the slaves of bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, then let bankers continue to create money and control credit.3

Professor Henry C. K. Liu is an economist who graduated from Harvard and chaired a graduate department at UCLA before becoming an investment adviser for developing countries. He calls the current monetary scheme a "cruel hoax." When we wake up to that fact, he says, our entire economic world view will need to be reordered, "just as physics was subject to reordering when man's world view changed with the realization that the earth is not stationary nor is it the center of the universe."4 The hoax is that there is virtually no "real" money in the system, only debts. Except for coins, which are issued by the government and make up only about one one-thousandth of the money supply, the entire U.S. money supply now consists of debt to private banks, for money they created with accounting entries on their books. It is all done by sleight of hand; and like a magician's trick, we have to see it many times before we realize what is going on. But when we do, it changes everything. All of history has to be rewritten.

The following chapters track the web of deceit that has engulfed us in debt, and present a simple solution that could make the country solvent once again. It is not a new solution but dates back to the Constitution: the power to create money needs to be returned to the government and the people it represents. The federal debt could be paid, income taxes could be eliminated, and social programs could be expanded; and this could all be done without imposing austerity measures on the people or sparking runaway inflation. Utopian as that may sound, it represents the thinking of some of America's brightest and best, historical and contemporary, including Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Among other arresting facts explored in this book are that:

* The "Federal" Reserve is not actually federal. It is a private corporation owned by a consortium of very large multinational banks. (Chapter 13)
* Except for coins, the government does not create money. Dollar bills (Federal Reserve Notes) are created by the private Federal Reserve, which lends them to the government. (Chapter 2)

* Tangible currency (coins and dollar bills) together make up less than 3 percent of the U.S. money supply. The other 97 percent exists only as data entries on computer screens, and all of this money was created by banks in the form of loans. (Chapters 2 and 17)

* The money that banks lend is not recycled from pre-existing deposits. It is new money, which did not exist until it was lent. (Chapters 17 and 18)

* Thirty percent of the money created by banks with accounting entries is invested for their own accounts. (Chapter 18)

* The American banking system, which at one time extended productive loans to agriculture and industry, has today become a giant betting machine. An estimated $370 trillion are now riding on complex high-risk bets known as derivatives – 28 times the $13 trillion annual output of the entire U.S. economy. These bets are funded by big U.S. banks and are made largely with borrowed money created on a computer screen. Derivatives can be and have been used to manipulate markets, loot businesses, and destroy competitor economies. (Chapters 20 and 32)

* The U.S. federal debt has not been paid off since the days of Andrew Jackson. Only the interest gets paid, while the principal portion continues to grow. (Chapter 2)

* The federal income tax was instituted specifically to coerce taxpayers to pay the interest due to the banks on the federal debt. If the money supply had been created by the government rather than borrowed from banks that created it, the income tax would have been unnecessary. (Chapters 13 and 43)

* The interest alone on the federal debt will soon be more than the taxpayers can afford to pay. When we can't pay, the Federal Reserve's debt-based dollar system must collapse. (Chapter 29)

* Contrary to popular belief, creeping inflation is not caused by the government irresponsibly printing dollars. It is caused by banks expanding the money supply with loans. (Chapter 10)

* Most of the runaway inflation seen in "banana republics" has been caused, not by national governments over-printing money, but by global institutional speculators attacking local currencies and devaluing them on international markets. (Chapter 25)

* The same sort of speculative devaluation could happen to the U.S. dollar if international investors were to abandon it as a global "reserve" currency, something they are now threatening to do in retaliation for what they perceive to be American economic imperialism. (Chapters 29 and 37)

* There is a way out of this morass. The early American colonists found it, and so did Abraham Lincoln and some other national leaders: the government can take back the money-issuing power from the banks. (Chapters 8 and 24)

The bankers' Federal Reserve Notes and the government's coins represent two separate money systems that have been competing for dominance throughout recorded history. At one time, the right to issue money was the sovereign right of the king; but that right got usurped by private moneylenders. Today the sovereigns are the people, and the coins that make up less than one one-thousandth of the money supply are all that are left of our sovereign money. Many nations have successfully issued their own money, at least for a time; but the bankers' debt-money has generally infiltrated the system and taken over in the end. These concepts are so foreign to what we have been taught that it can be hard to wrap our minds around them, but the facts have been substantiated by many reliable authorities. To cite a few –

Robert H. Hemphill, Credit Manager of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, wrote in 1934:

We are completely dependent on the commercial Banks. Someone has to borrow every dollar we have in circulation, cash or credit. If the Banks create ample synthetic money we are prosperous; if not, we starve. We are absolutely without a permanent money system. When one gets a complete grasp of the picture, the tragic absurdity of our hopeless position is almost incredible, but there it is. It is the most important subject intelligent persons can investigate and reflect upon. 5

Graham Towers, Governor of the Bank of Canada from 1935 to 1955, acknowledged:

Banks create money. That is what they are for. . . . The manufacturing process to make money consists of making an entry in a book. That is all. . . . Each and every time a Bank makes a loan . . . new Bank credit is created -- brand new money.6

Robert B. Anderson, Secretary of the Treasury under Eisenhower, said in an interview reported in the August 31, 1959 issue of U.S. News and World Report:

[W]hen a bank makes a loan, it simply adds to the borrower's deposit account in the bank by the amount of the loan. The money is not taken from anyone else's deposit; it was not previously paid in to the bank by anyone. It's new money, created by the bank for the use of the borrower.

Michel Chossudovsky, Professor of Economics at the University of Ottawa, wrote during the Asian currency crisis of 1998:

[P]rivately held money reserves in the hands of "institutional speculators" far exceed the limited capabilities of the World's central banks. The latter acting individually or collectively are no longer able to fight the tide of speculative activity. Monetary policy is in the hands of private creditors who have the ability to freeze State budgets, paralyse the payments process, thwart the regular disbursement of wages to millions of workers (as in the former Soviet Union) and precipitate the collapse of production and social programmes.7

Today, Federal Reserve Notes and U.S. dollar loans dominate the economy of the world; but this international currency is not money issued by the American people or their government. It is money created and lent by a private cartel of international bankers, and this cartel has the United States itself hopelessly entangled in a web of debt. By 2006, combined personal, corporate and federal debt in the United States had reached a staggering 44 trillion dollars – four times the collective national income, or $147,312 for every man, woman and child in the country.8 The United States is legally bankrupt, defined in the dictionary as being unable to pay one's debts, being insolvent, or having liabilities in excess of a reasonable market value of assets held. By October 2006, the debt of the U.S. government had hit a breath-taking $8.5 trillion. Local, state and national governments are all so heavily in debt that they have been forced to sell off public assets to satisfy creditors. Crowded schools, crowded roads, and cutbacks in public transportation are eroding the quality of American life. A 2005 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation's infrastructure an overall grade of D, including its roads, bridges, drinking water systems and other public works. "Americans are spending more time stuck in traffic and less time at home with their families," said the group's president. "We need to establish a comprehensive, long-term infrastructure plan."9 We need to but we can't, because government at every level is broke.

Money in the Land of Oz

If governments everywhere are in debt, who are they in debt to? The answer is that they are in debt to private banks. The "cruel hoax" is that governments are in debt for money created on a computer screen, money they could have created themselves. The vast power acquired through this sleight of hand by a small clique of men pulling the strings of government behind the scenes evokes images from The Wizard of Oz, a classic American fairytale that has become a rich source of imagery for financial commentators. Editorialist Christopher Mark wrote in a series called "The Grand Deception":

Welcome to the world of the International Banker, who like the famous film, The Wizard of Oz, stands behind the curtain of orchestrated national and international policymakers and so-called elected leaders. 10

The late Murray Rothbard, an economist of the classical Austrian School, wrote:

Money and banking have been made to appear as mysterious and arcane processes that must be guided and operated by a technocratic elite. They are nothing of the sort. In money, even more than the rest of our affairs, we have been tricked by a malignant Wizard of Oz.11

In a 2002 article titled "Who Controls the Federal Reserve System?", Victor Thorn wrote:

In essence, money has become nothing more than illusion -- an electronic figure or amount on a computer screen. . . . As time goes on, we have an increasing tendency toward being sucked into this Wizard of Oz vortex of unreality [by] magician-priests that use the illusion of money as their control device.12

James Galbraith wrote in The New American Prospect:

We are left . . . with the thought that the Federal Reserve Board does not know what it is doing. This is the "Wizard of Oz" theory, in which we pull away the curtains only to find an old man with a wrinkled face, playing with lights and loudspeakers.13

The analogies to The Wizard of Oz work for a reason. According to later commentators, the tale was actually written as a monetary allegory, at a time when the "money question" was a key issue in American politics. In the 1890s, politicians were still hotly debating who should create the nation's money and what it should consist of. Should it be created by the government, with full accountability to the people? Or should it be created by private banks behind closed doors, for the banks' own private ends?

William Jennings Bryan, the Populist candidate for President in 1896 and again in 1900, mounted the last serious challenge to the right of private bankers to create the national money supply. According to the commentators, Bryan was represented in Frank Baum's 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by the Cowardly Lion. The Lion finally proved he was the King of Beasts by decapitating a giant spider that was terrorizing everyone in the forest. The giant spider Bryan challenged at the turn of the twentieth century was the Morgan/Rockefeller banking cartel, which was bent on usurping the power to create the nation's money from the people and their representative government.

Before World War I, two opposing systems of political economy competed for dominance in the United States. One operated out of Wall Street, the New York financial district that came to be the symbol of American finance. Its most important address was 23 Wall Street, known as the "House of Morgan." J. P. Morgan was an agent of powerful British banking interests. The Wizards of Wall Street and the Old World bankers pulling their strings sought to establish a national currency that was based on the "gold standard," one created privately by the financial elite who controlled the gold. The other system dated back to Benjamin Franklin and operated out of Philadelphia, the country's first capital, where the Constitutional Convention was held and Franklin's "Society for Political Inquiries" planned the industrialization and public works that would free the new republic from economic slavery to England.14 The Philadelphia faction favored a bank on the model established in provincial Pennsylvania, where a state loan office issued and lent money, collected the interest, and returned it to the provincial government to be used in place of taxes. President Abraham Lincoln returned to the colonial system of government-issued money during the Civil War; but he was assassinated, and the bankers reclaimed control of the money machine. The silent coup of the Wall Street faction culminated with the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, something they achieved by misleading Bryan and other wary Congressmen into thinking the Federal Reserve was actually federal.

Today the debate over who should create the national money supply is rarely heard, mainly because few people even realize it is an issue. Politicians and economists, along with everybody else, simply assume that money is created by the government, and that the "inflation" everybody complains about is caused by an out-of-control government running the dollar printing presses. The puppeteers working the money machine were more visible in the 1890s than they are today, largely because they had not yet succeeded in buying up the media and cornering public opinion.

Economics is a dry and forbidding subject that has been made intentionally complex by banking interests intent on concealing what is really going on. It is a subject that sorely needs lightening up, with imagery, metaphors, characters and a plot; so before we get into the ponderous details of the modern system of money-based-on-debt, we'll take an excursion back to a simpler time, when the money issues were more obvious and were still a burning topic of discussion. The plot line for The Wizard of Oz has been traced to the first-ever march on Washington, led by an obscure Ohio businessman who sought to persuade Congress to return to Lincoln's system of government-issued money in 1894. Besides sparking a century of protest marches and the country's most famous fairytale, this little-known visionary and the band of unemployed men he led may actually have had the solution to the whole money problem, then and now . . . .

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"Capitalist Fools" - Joseph E. Stiglitz

Opinion [says "Vanity Fair" - it's good analysis to me]
Capitalist Fools
by: Joseph E. Stiglitz, Vanity Fair

January 2009 Issue

Behind the debate over remaking US financial policy will be a debate over who's to blame. It's crucial to get the history right, writes a Nobel-laureate economist, identifying five key mistakes - under Reagan, Clinton and Bush II - and one national delusion.

There will come a moment when the most urgent threats posed by the credit crisis have eased and the larger task before us will be to chart a direction for the economic steps ahead. This will be a dangerous moment. Behind the debates over future policy is a debate over history - a debate over the causes of our current situation. The battle for the past will determine the battle for the present. So it's crucial to get the history straight.

What were the critical decisions that led to the crisis? Mistakes were made at every fork in the road - we had what engineers call a "system failure," when not a single decision but a cascade of decisions produce a tragic result. Let's look at five key moments.

No. 1: Firing the Chairman

In 1987 the Reagan administration decided to remove Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and appoint Alan Greenspan in his place. Volcker had done what central bankers are supposed to do. On his watch, inflation had been brought down from more than 11 percent to under 4 percent. In the world of central banking, that should have earned him a grade of A+++ and assured his re-appointment. But Volcker also understood that financial markets need to be regulated. Reagan wanted someone who did not believe any such thing, and he found him in a devotee of the objectivist philosopher and free-market zealot Ayn Rand.

Greenspan played a double role. The Fed controls the money spigot, and in the early years of this decade, he turned it on full force. But the Fed is also a regulator. If you appoint an anti-regulator as your enforcer, you know what kind of enforcement you'll get. A flood of liquidity combined with the failed levees of regulation proved disastrous.

Greenspan presided over not one but two financial bubbles. After the high-tech bubble popped, in 2000-2001, he helped inflate the housing bubble. The first responsibility of a central bank should be to maintain the stability of the financial system. If banks lend on the basis of artificially high asset prices, the result can be a meltdown - as we are seeing now, and as Greenspan should have known. He had many of the tools he needed to cope with the situation. To deal with the high-tech bubble, he could have increased margin requirements (the amount of cash people need to put down to buy stock). To deflate the housing bubble, he could have curbed predatory lending to low-income households and prohibited other insidious practices (the no-documentation - or "liar" - loans, the interest-only loans, and so on). This would have gone a long way toward protecting us. If he didn't have the tools, he could have gone to Congress and asked for them.

Of course, the current problems with our financial system are not solely the result of bad lending. The banks have made mega-bets with one another through complicated instruments such as derivatives, credit-default swaps, and so forth. With these, one party pays another if certain events happen - for instance, if Bear Stearns goes bankrupt, or if the dollar soars. These instruments were originally created to help manage risk - but they can also be used to gamble. Thus, if you felt confident that the dollar was going to fall, you could make a big bet accordingly, and if the dollar indeed fell, your profits would soar. The problem is that, with this complicated intertwining of bets of great magnitude, no one could be sure of the financial position of anyone else - or even of one's own position. Not surprisingly, the credit markets froze.

Here too Greenspan played a role. When I was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, during the Clinton administration, I served on a committee of all the major federal financial regulators, a group that included Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Even then, it was clear that derivatives posed a danger. We didn't put it as memorably as Warren Buffett - who saw derivatives as "financial weapons of mass destruction" - but we took his point. And yet, for all the risk, the deregulators in charge of the financial system - at the Fed, at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and elsewhere - decided to do nothing, worried that any action might interfere with "innovation" in the financial system. But innovation, like "change," has no inherent value. It can be bad (the "liar" loans are a good example) as well as good.

No. 2: Tearing Down the Walls

The deregulation philosophy would pay unwelcome dividends for years to come. In November 1999, Congress repealed the Glass-Steagall Act - the culmination of a $300 million lobbying effort by the banking and financial-services industries, and spearheaded in Congress by Senator Phil Gramm. Glass-Steagall had long separated commercial banks (which lend money) and investment banks (which organize the sale of bonds and equities); it had been enacted in the aftermath of the Great Depression and was meant to curb the excesses of that era, including grave conflicts of interest. For instance, without separation, if a company whose shares had been issued by an investment bank, with its strong endorsement, got into trouble, wouldn't its commercial arm, if it had one, feel pressure to lend it money, perhaps unwisely? An ensuing spiral of bad judgment is not hard to foresee. I had opposed repeal of Glass-Steagall. The proponents said, in effect, Trust us: we will create Chinese walls to make sure that the problems of the past do not recur. As an economist, I certainly possessed a healthy degree of trust, trust in the power of economic incentives to bend human behavior toward self-interest - toward short-term self-interest, at any rate, rather than Tocqueville's "self interest rightly understood."

The most important consequence of the repeal of Glass-Steagall was indirect - it lay in the way repeal changed an entire culture. Commercial banks are not supposed to be high-risk ventures; they are supposed to manage other people's money very conservatively. It is with this understanding that the government agrees to pick up the tab should they fail. Investment banks, on the other hand, have traditionally managed rich people's money - people who can take bigger risks in order to get bigger returns. When repeal of Glass-Steagall brought investment and commercial banks together, the investment-bank culture came out on top. There was a demand for the kind of high returns that could be obtained only through high leverage and big risktaking.

There were other important steps down the deregulatory path. One was the decision in April 2004 by the Securities and Exchange Commission, at a meeting attended by virtually no one and largely overlooked at the time, to allow big investment banks to increase their debt-to-capital ratio (from 12:1 to 30:1, or higher) so that they could buy more mortgage-backed securities, inflating the housing bubble in the process. In agreeing to this measure, the S.E.C. argued for the virtues of self-regulation: the peculiar notion that banks can effectively police themselves. Self-regulation is preposterous, as even Alan Greenspan now concedes, and as a practical matter it can't, in any case, identify systemic risks - the kinds of risks that arise when, for instance, the models used by each of the banks to manage their portfolios tell all the banks to sell some security all at once.

As we stripped back the old regulations, we did nothing to address the new challenges posed by 21st-century markets. The most important challenge was that posed by derivatives. In 1998 the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Brooksley Born, had called for such regulation - a concern that took on urgency after the Fed, in that same year, engineered the bailout of Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund whose trillion-dollar-plus failure threatened global financial markets. But Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, his deputy, Larry Summers, and Greenspan were adamant - and successful - in their opposition. Nothing was done.

No. 3: Applying the Leeches

Then along came the Bush tax cuts, enacted first on June 7, 2001, with a follow-on installment two years later. The president and his advisers seemed to believe that tax cuts, especially for upper-income Americans and corporations, were a cure-all for any economic disease - the modern-day equivalent of leeches. The tax cuts played a pivotal role in shaping the background conditions of the current crisis. Because they did very little to stimulate the economy, real stimulation was left to the Fed, which took up the task with unprecedented low-interest rates and liquidity. The war in Iraq made matters worse, because it led to soaring oil prices. With America so dependent on oil imports, we had to spend several hundred billion more to purchase oil - money that otherwise would have been spent on American goods. Normally this would have led to an economic slowdown, as it had in the 1970s. But the Fed met the challenge in the most myopic way imaginable. The flood of liquidity made money readily available in mortgage markets, even to those who would normally not be able to borrow. And, yes, this succeeded in forestalling an economic downturn; America's household saving rate plummeted to zero. But it should have been clear that we were living on borrowed money and borrowed time.

The cut in the tax rate on capital gains contributed to the crisis in another way. It was a decision that turned on values: those who speculated (read: gambled) and won were taxed more lightly than wage earners who simply worked hard. But more than that, the decision encouraged leveraging, because interest was tax-deductible. If, for instance, you borrowed a million to buy a home or took a $100,000 home-equity loan to buy stock, the interest would be fully deductible every year. Any capital gains you made were taxed lightly - and at some possibly remote day in the future. The Bush administration was providing an open invitation to excessive borrowing and lending - not that American consumers needed any more encouragement.

No. 4: Faking the Numbers

Meanwhile, on July 30, 2002, in the wake of a series of major scandals - notably the collapse of WorldCom and Enron - Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The scandals had involved every major American accounting firm, most of our banks, and some of our premier companies, and made it clear that we had serious problems with our accounting system. Accounting is a sleep-inducing topic for most people, but if you can't have faith in a company's numbers, then you can't have faith in anything about a company at all. Unfortunately, in the negotiations over what became Sarbanes-Oxley a decision was made not to deal with what many, including the respected former head of the S.E.C. Arthur Levitt, believed to be a fundamental underlying problem: stock options. Stock options have been defended as providing healthy incentives toward good management, but in fact they are "incentive pay" in name only. If a company does well, the C.E.O. gets great rewards in the form of stock options; if a company does poorly, the compensation is almost as substantial but is bestowed in other ways. This is bad enough. But a collateral problem with stock options is that they provide incentives for bad accounting: top management has every incentive to provide distorted information in order to pump up share prices.

The incentive structure of the rating agencies also proved perverse. Agencies such as Moody's and Standard & Poor's are paid by the very people they are supposed to grade. As a result, they've had every reason to give companies high ratings, in a financial version of what college professors know as grade inflation. The rating agencies, like the investment banks that were paying them, believed in financial alchemy - that F-rated toxic mortgages could be converted into products that were safe enough to be held by commercial banks and pension funds. We had seen this same failure of the rating agencies during the East Asia crisis of the 1990s: high ratings facilitated a rush of money into the region, and then a sudden reversal in the ratings brought devastation. But the financial overseers paid no attention.

No. 5: Letting It Bleed

The final turning point came with the passage of a bailout package on October 3, 2008 - that is, with the administration's response to the crisis itself. We will be feeling the consequences for years to come. Both the administration and the Fed had long been driven by wishful thinking, hoping that the bad news was just a blip, and that a return to growth was just around the corner. As America's banks faced collapse, the administration veered from one course of action to another. Some institutions (Bear Stearns, A.I.G., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac) were bailed out. Lehman Brothers was not. Some shareholders got something back. Others did not.

The original proposal by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a three-page document that would have provided $700 billion for the secretary to spend at his sole discretion, without oversight or judicial review, was an act of extraordinary arrogance. He sold the program as necessary to restore confidence. But it didn't address the underlying reasons for the loss of confidence. The banks had made too many bad loans. There were big holes in their balance sheets. No one knew what was truth and what was fiction. The bailout package was like a massive transfusion to a patient suffering from internal bleeding - and nothing was being done about the source of the problem, namely all those foreclosures. Valuable time was wasted as Paulson pushed his own plan, "cash for trash," buying up the bad assets and putting the risk onto American taxpayers. When he finally abandoned it, providing banks with money they needed, he did it in a way that not only cheated America's taxpayers but failed to ensure that the banks would use the money to restart lending. He even allowed the banks to pour out money to their shareholders as taxpayers were pouring money into the banks.

The other problem not addressed involved the looming weaknesses in the economy. The economy had been sustained by excessive borrowing. That game was up. As consumption contracted, exports kept the economy going, but with the dollar strengthening and Europe and the rest of the world declining, it was hard to see how that could continue. Meanwhile, states faced massive drop-offs in revenues - they would have to cut back on expenditures. Without quick action by government, the economy faced a downturn. And even if banks had lent wisely - which they hadn't - the downturn was sure to mean an increase in bad debts, further weakening the struggling financial sector.

The administration talked about confidence building, but what it delivered was actually a confidence trick. If the administration had really wanted to restore confidence in the financial system, it would have begun by addressing the underlying problems - the flawed incentive structures and the inadequate regulatory system.

Was there any single decision which, had it been reversed, would have changed the course of history? Every decision - including decisions not to do something, as many of our bad economic decisions have been - is a consequence of prior decisions, an interlinked web stretching from the distant past into the future. You'll hear some on the right point to certain actions by the government itself - such as the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to make mortgage money available in low-income neighborhoods. (Defaults on C.R.A. lending were actually much lower than on other lending.) There has been much finger-pointing at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two huge mortgage lenders, which were originally government-owned. But in fact they came late to the subprime game, and their problem was similar to that of the private sector: their C.E.O.'s had the same perverse incentive to indulge in gambling.

The truth is most of the individual mistakes boil down to just one: a belief that markets are self-adjusting and that the role of government should be minimal. Looking back at that belief during hearings this fall on Capitol Hill, Alan Greenspan said out loud, "I have found a flaw." Congressman Henry Waxman pushed him, responding, "In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right; it was not working." "Absolutely, precisely," Greenspan said. The embrace by America - and much of the rest of the world - of this flawed economic philosophy made it inevitable that we would eventually arrive at the place we are today.


Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist, is a professor at Columbia University.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

"Flamingoes with Flowers" by Rick Baker

Flamingos with Flowers

A beautiful classical (style) photo. Reminds me some of Audobon prints or 19th century (or earlier) Classical naturescapes - balanced and reasoned in composition. A beauty!

said donharis