Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Honey, What Happened To Our Money?

Greed and gambling go hand in hand. Money in the form of profit-making has long been de facto god for Americans and denizens of most market economies. Of course this is nothing new: a century or so ago a German sociologist, Georg Simmel, warned about this and criticized banks for being more powerful than the church, already back then. A couple decades later we had a global collapse and the Great Depression. Lessons from that seem to have been forgotten as people don't like to learn from past mistakes, such as wars. Once we were back on our feet, we came up with the American Dream and expected the world to follow in this ideology. We have promoted our value system heavily around the globe and now that we have ended up with the American Nightmare, everyone is suffering.

Gambling is said to be very addictive. I don't take part in it so my knowledge comes only from observing others. The higher the stakes, the more thrilling it becomes, ultimately leading to a catastrophe. Karl Marx wrote: Capital is as terrified of the absence of profit or a very small profit as nature is of a vacuum. With suitable profits, capital is awakened; with 10 percent, it can be used anywhere; with 20 percent, it becomes lively; with 50 percent, positively daring; with 100 percent, it will crush all human laws under its feet; and with 300 percent, there is no crime it is not willing to dare, even at the risk of the gallows. This is true except that in this society of ours the greedy CEOs and others behind this mess are forgiven, even applauded for their efforts. Only in China would they perhaps be executed, as the Chinese tend to do that with people in power who fail.

This administration will no doubt be remembered for its failures as one of the worst ever. People can only blame themselves for naively believing in lies during the past elections and voting the way they did, or for not voting at all. From having a surplus, our balance sheet is now so much in the red that our grandchildren will still be paying for the debt, unless they all are in a poorhouse. The next president will have an almost impossible task of trying to normalize life in America, a job not to be envied. It is not very reassuring that one of the candidates is a lifelong gambler who is still known to frequent casinos for his favorite pastime. We've already had eight years of gambling which has bankrupted the nation. We are horrified by the thought of socialized health care, yet at the same time we are ready to socialize Wall Street and the financial sector for the benefit of the really-well-to-do. Something is thoroughly wrong with this picture. Much good did the almost-a-trillion-dollar bailout do: the market has taken a turn for the worse in the days after, and not just here but globally. Today we learned that after the insurance giant AIG secured their $85 billion bailout package, the company's executives went on a $443,000 retreat in California. Another uplifting news item: our country's retirement plans have lost $2 trillion in value.

Nowhere has imitating the American financial model backfired worse than in Iceland. Just a year ago, the country with a population of only three hundred thousand was often mentioned as a bright star of global economy, and even promoted as the "best" country to live in. Mainly American-trained young financial "geniuses" decided more than a decade ago that time had come to make Iceland an important financial center. The small nation's banks and investment firms opened branches in many other countries, expanding with the help of borrowed capital. In my native Finland these banks promised a higher interest rate for savings than national banks and lured a great number of people to become their customers. Although they never were a major player in the U.S., Icelandic banks took a much bigger role in the United Kingdom. 200,000 people in that country have to fight for their money after the collapse of Icesave, an extension of Landsbanki which has gone into receivership. Icesave also has Dutch customers. Of the Icelandic banks, only the largest, Kaupthing, might be able to survive. Interestingly the western powers decided not to help their tiny ally in the North Atlantic, close to Greenland, and Iceland's government had to turn to Russia for help, in form of an emergency loan. Knowing that the nation has weathered difficult times in the past, often caused by natural disasters, they have always managed to survive and will do so again, even if life for some years will suddenly be much harder. We would have a much more difficult time in coping with a disaster of that magnitude. Katrina's ripples are still being felt and yet the hurricane destroyed only one city, not an entire country.

No doubt, the non-profits will suffer a great deal from the mess in the United States. It is hard to imagine people willing to donate to any such cause at this time. Food banks are running low and shelters have to turn many needy away. Those organizations that exist in order to entertain audiences better be prepared for a long winter. There are stories of empty auditoriums all around, and I don't see why going to an opera or ballet performance, or a concert, would get priority today in people's lives. Perhaps that part of American life has also come to an end as we have known it, or it will take enormous sacrifices from the part of people working for such enterprises or leading them. It is time for people to come down from their ivory towers. The sense of entitlement they have is as real as the housing bubble, after all. I feel sympathy for the hard-working person who has lost or is in danger of losing his or her home, rather than for a self-glorified snob.

Before you go to the polls, watch the video of a vice-presidential candidate playing the flute if you haven't already done so. The skill level shown should satisfy the spousal criteria for a right-wing orchestra conductor.