Saturday, October 4, 2008

Panic Attack

At the root of the economic crisis currently facing the United States is some of the most shockingly negligent and shady governance in the history of the country.

In a singularly black week in which Americans went from being “the most powerful nation on earth” to feeling like one of its most destitute, teetering on the brink of its worst panic since the Great Depression, we saw valiant attempts by both of the presidential candidates – one of whose executive office will ultimately have to deal with this ungodly mess – seeking to reassure a stunned nation and to offer suggestions as to how their presidencies might handle it. Both rushed back to Washington to jumpstart bailout negotiations and both urged their parties to cooperate in finding a first-aid solution to keep the country from folding up like a house of cards.

Neither candidate, as it turns out, has wholeheartedly embraced the final result, even if they voted for it. Worse still, neither have most common everyday American folks, who, if they had their druthers, would probably rather drag the grossly overpaid corporate fat cats and their pampered government lackeys, who got filthy rich driving their companies and the country bankrupt, out into the street and toss them into a huge bonfire set ablaze with all of the worthless paper that they have generated and floated on the market in these first years of the new millennium.

From the people who should have been actively doing something to stave off this catastrophe, what we mostly have gotten is finger-pointing, blame-laying, excuse-making and justification of the utterly indefensible. More specifically, President Bush’s speech to the nation regarding the crisis was way too little, way too late and sounded, as usual, like a weak-kneed apology for the appalling behavior of his big friends in big business and sorry excuses for his proposed golden-parachute bailout that, even in its post-Congress modified form, promises to mortage the future of Americans for years to come, after leaving their hard-earned savings dilapidated, when their only fault was believing in their country and its economy instead of burying their money in a tin box in the backyard, where it surely would have been safer. The president’s 13-minute speech was more of a brief resume of nearly a decade of irresponsible and ignominious behavior that he sought to palm off as an unexpected turn of events. What it was, in fact, and in twenty-twenty hindsight, was a highly predictable debacle. That is, if anybody had been watching, or if those who were watching would have let the public at large in on what has clearly been this administration’s best kept secret: namely, that big banking and big business, in the free-wheeling years of the Bush administration, have run “the most powerful nation on earth” bankrupt and taken the life savings of its people and their promise for the future with it.

More disgusting still than the president’s own lack of sincere apology for his administration's complete and disastrous failure to warn the citizens that it is sworn to defend of the impending disaster that unchecked speculation and greed have brought to the country was the rapid move by emblematic Republicans to shift the blame elsewere. We had to sit by and listen to them claim that it all began with Bill Clinton’s attempts to ensure that the vast numbers of American homeless were brought in out of the cold, or that a Democratic Congress had tied the president’s hands, when the truth is that the Bush administration stood by and did nothing, and moreover, aided and abetted the perpetrators of the crash by self-righteously invoking liberal, free-market policy as an excuse for doing nothing, or for doing everything it could to give the impression that the economy was basically strong when, in fact, it was crumbling beneath our very feet.

Even former Speaker of the House and conservative icon Newt Gingrich, while admitting that he was “embarrassed” that this could happen with a Republican in the White House, suggested that perhaps a lot of it was the fault of Mr. Clinton and other Democrats for getting the banks to lend mortgage money to people who couldn’t afford a home. When asked why the president had failed to warn Americans that huge firms like Lehman and AIG were broke and about to topple, he made the ludicrous suggestion that he “didn’t think the president knew”. Did Mr. Gingrich forget that he was talking about the president of the United States, the most powerful and highly informed leader on earth, or does he just think the rest of us are obtuse and will fall for such an obvious untruth? Or if not, does he, just perhaps, think that the president is stupid? Or, still another possibility, is Mr. Gingrich himself, perhaps, a mental midget? Whatever the case might be, such answers are not merely ingenuous, but downright fatuous and singularly irritating coming from a long-ranking Republican like himself.

Whatever “sins” the Clinton administration may have committed were, to begin with, “presidential sins”, redeemable by the president who followed. If this had happened at the outset of the Bush administration, then perhaps Republicans could have blamed it on the Democratics that came before them. But it has come to a head now, on the very eve of the end of the two-term George W. Bush era. It comes at the end of the eight years in office of one of the most power-grabbing regime’s Washington has ever known. It comes following an administration that has constantly touted its war-time status and dangerously courted authoritarian designs. Who could possibly believe that an administration like Mr. Bush’s – which has always danced cheek-to-cheek with big business and big oil and which has enjoyed a level of power and consent beyond the wildest dreams of any executive in living memory – could be unaware of the impending chaos?

The United States could not have reached this point of panicstriken chaos without the knowledge of the nation’s leaders and particularly of its chief executive and the presidential cabinet. Just saying that the president might not have known what was going on in what amounts to an issue of utmost national security like the speculative undermining of the entire economy to the point of plunging the country into national bankruptcy is tantamount to admitting that the entire administration including the president was not just caught napping but was surprised in an absolutely comatose state on its watch. Wouldn't this, then, be a much more monumentally grave case of ethical laxitude than the private-life, sexual misconduct of President Clinton that Mr. Gingrich was so quick to denounce as worthy of impeachment back in the days of Democratic rule? And if so, why isn't the former Speaker turned author and TV pundit now clamoring for heads to roll in the Bush administration, instead of simply blushing with puerile shame? I mean, other, that is, than because he and Mr. Bush both have elephants tatooed on their proverbial breasts.

More nefarious still are attempts by Republican Party surrogates in the press to lay the blame at the door of the "non-performing poor". It is at least inexcusably naive if not downright dishonest, ill-intentioned and mean-spirited to suggest that banking loaned a raft of money to people who, because of their low income, probably never should have qualified for credit, but did so out of the “kindness of the bankers’ hearts” because they wanted people to be able to buy homes, having then been duped by the “wicked” low-income beneficiaries who all of the sudden and all together defaulted, precipitating today's crisis. Anyone who really expects the people of the United States to believe such complete nonsense clearly thinks Americans to be a nation of imbeciles. And anyone who buys this guff is indeed just that, a complete imbecile.

Culturally speaking, throughout the Bush Jr. era, the United States has been living in a haze of 1950s naiveté but transferred to a time of not only much-multiplied sophistication but also of dehumanizing ruthlessness. It is a ruthlessness that while no less terrifying for it, is socio-politically natural enough. It’s that in those naive '50s that successive Republican Administrations since Ronald Reagan have tried so hard to recreate as one might set a stage to generate an illusion, we Baby-Boomers were growing up in a world that was supporting a population of only a little over 2 billion and Humanity was only just becoming vaguely aware of some environmental and social challenges that might have to be faced in what was thought would be the distant future.

But today the world is fast approaching a population of 7 billion, a fact that is suddenly making vital resources scarce: food, oil, potable water, land, clean air, etc., etc. That which is scarce logically becomes precious. This fosters greed. And this has become an era of unbridled greed.

It is an easier concept to understand if we think of the history, not of these things that we have taken for granted, but that of so-called “precious stones” and “precious metals”. For as long as men have known how to smelt ore and mine gems, they have killed and died for gold and diamonds, for rubies and silver, for emeralds and pearls. And in doing so that have sought to corner the markets for such precious items.

The mentality that we are seeing in corporate business, in investment banking and on Wall Street today is based on this kind of greed, the greed of accumulation, the greed of the cornered market, the greed of getting whatever John and Jane Q. Public have out of their pockets and into those of the major speculators and “business hogs”. And there can be no doubt that government has served the interests of such speculators by encouraging and facilitating or at least turning a blind eye to high-risk credit, society-wide speculative investment, consumerism gone wild, and a general climate of life far beyond one’s means. And all of this in the name of maintaining the illusion of the American Dream in a country that produces fewer and fewer tangibles all the time, while cranking out ever greater mountains of paper assets whose value is as invented and illusive as that staged '50s innocence.

This is the noxious combination that has given us a generation of industry sultans who have each amassed tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in their personal fortunes while plunging their companies into bankruptcy and lying about it on their books. It is the same pernicious combination that has generated multi-billionaire robber barons who have been held up as cult heroes in business for getting away with monopolistic murder. The same evil mix that has permitted financial institutions to encourage people to enter into mortgages that they would never be able to pay off in a lifetime, or to take out two and three mortgages on the same property based on nothing more than an often hollow dream of financial success in the future.

The horror of nine-eleven shocked Americans into submission in the face of a government that has been all about unlimited power for itself and its friends in big oil and big business. This is not a rash statement. The Bush administration has used nine-eleven, international terrorism and the war in Iraq as a bogeyman with which to frighten the nation as a whole into doing its will. Throughout the eight years of the Bush administration, people have been afraid to speak their mind. They have been afraid to question, afraid that they will be perceived as “against” instead of “for”, under a regime that has sought to convince anyone that will listen that criticizing the country and indeed the government borders on treason at a time when the United States is “under attack” from abroad and “fighting for its life”. We are fighting for our lives, all right, but the greatest danger to the American way of life right now is what’s happening to the economy and what hasn’t been happening in Washington: namely, the necessary oversight to protect the economy from rampant speculation and greed and the citizenry from widespread hardship.

The exploitation of “things that go bump in the night” has permitted Washington to invent far-fetched justifications, like the weapons of mass destruction that Iraq never had as an excuse for invading an oil-reach country that never had anything to do with the nine-eleven attacks. It has permitted the administration to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a protacted war that has still not produced the capture of the supposed architect of the nine-eleven massacre or the disappearance of the terrorist organization that he leads, but that has cost thousands of lives on both sides, and for which no end in sight. How can we be expected to believe that such a grossly and nefariously invented war is not, in the end, about oil and the interests of the administration’s closest friend. Only the my-country-right-or-wrong naiveté of the 1950s could permit anyone to think otherwise. Especially when the vice president is the former CEO of one of the firms that has most benefited from the oilfield contracts that "saving Iraq from itself" has wrought. A vice president who has even recently demonstrated his utter contempt for the democratic traditions of the nation by claiming that his office doesn’t answer to the president and that it presides as more than a figurehead over the upper house of Congress when both things are clearly inventions of convenience and of astounding arrogance on his part. But then again, within the power circles in which this administration moves, the vice president might very well indeed overshadow the president’s power.

During the Bush administration we have witnessed how oil speculators in connivance with big oil have held the country hostage at the gas pump, how big banking and Wall Street speculators have run amok and run the country bankrupt and how government at all levels has knuckled under to the post-nine-eleven with-us-or-against-us mentality of bogeyman paranoia and McCarthyite persecution orchestrated to keep people’s mind off of what was really happening and the results of which we have experienced in the past couple of nightmare weeks.

Gee whizz, wouldn’t it be just swell and dandy to stop thinking about all this doom and go back to the days when the North America looked like a Norman Rockwell painting and gasoline cost 20 cents a gallon? But those days are over and it is time for Americans to come of age.

We need to be perspicacious. We need to distrust government and call it to account. We need to use the Internet for something besides chatting, games and infotainment, use it to get connected, get informed and get our opinions out there. We need to get mad, get involved and get down hard on business and political leaders that lie to us, cheat us, pick our pockets and strip us of our rights, our money and our self-respect. We need to ignore their flag-waving campaigns to win our hearts and loyalties while luring us to disaster. The age of innocence is long-ended. It’s time to get smart, get tough and get mean, if we hope to survive. Most of all, it is time to trust citizen action over government action (or inaction) and become the most tenacious of watchdogs for our own interests.

If we don’t protect ourselves, nobody else least not if we don’t make them.


darlaginter said...

Dan--Your blog "Panic Attack" left me both angry and cheering. You so eloquently reflected my feelings of betrayal and frustration. Thanks. I needed that!

darlaginter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.