Understanding the financial system of the U.S. and the world is a daunting task that leads me to a painful form of brain freeze. But every once in awhile I find an article in the popular press that helps, like this recent piece in the New York Times. Yes, I know, I'm assigning you yet another somewhat lengthy piece of reading; but really, is reading and using your brain really too much to ask?
The article gives us a peek inside the tents at the big financial institutions and the government agencies that are supposed to be regulating them. What is revealed makes an ordinary consumer cringe: unbridled and unregulated greed is the credo of our financial system. The goal is short-term huge profit; the reward is even hugher bonuses and other forms of compensation. "Our financial catastrophe, like Bernard Madoff's pyramid scheme, required all sorts of important, plugged-in people to sacrifice our collective long-term interests for short-term gain. The pressure to do this in today's financial markets is immense." The system of financial institutions, rating agencies (like Moody's, and Standard and Poor's), and regulatory bodies like the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.) each have their hands in the others' pockets, and operate as a very large career revolving door.
The bailout orchestrated by Treasury Secretary Paulson rewarded big firms for making very bad business decisions. And the bailout, dubbed Troubled Assets Relief Program - TARP - has been just that, a tarp thrown over the dirty business in a way that prevents anyone from knowing what's really going on underneath. We don't need a TARP for this mess, we need a piece of clear plastic sheeting through which we can all watch for continuing shenanigans.
My wife and I are among the fortunate investors who only lost about 20% of the value of our investment portfolio (i.e. retirement savings) over the past year (only!). Our financial advisor had the smarts to see this coming and moved a lot of our money into safer investments that aren't making money, but also aren't losing a lot - an "asset protection strategy." Will we get bailed out by TARP? Duh. Once again the ordinary citizen, the consumer, ends up getting screwed by big business and their government partners - under the watchful neglect of an administration hell-bent on awarding it's "base" to the detriment of everyone else.
We live under an economic system that is not sustainable. The system is based on borrowing and spending as if there is no tomorrow - except that tomorrow showed up this past year demanding to be paid. As long as we, the consumers, continue to spend our money on "things," most of which we really don't need, the economic engine keeps running. But the value of these "things," whether they be HD television, SUV gas guzzlers, or houses, has to continue to increase, and we have to continue to buy them, or the house of cards starts to shake. We, the consumers, are merely the drones in this vast hive - as long as we do what we're told - buy, buy, buy - and don't hold onto our money too long (saving? what a stupid concept when you can buy anything you want on credit), everything chugs along. And, oh yeah, the folks at the top keep rolling in cash and laughing at us poor slobs whose pockets they took it from.
So what's the answer? Well, for one thing, I think that free-market capitalism is a sham and a bad paradigm. Is there something better? I don't know, but I think smart people with open minds can answer that question. In my opinion it all comes back to concepts of sustainability, an over used term these days, but one that has deep meanings. Certainly there is enough wealth in this world, created by the labor of human minds and hands, to provide a good quality of life for all of us. The change has to begin somewhere, and maybe it's us, the little people, who can force that change by the way we live our lives.