Monday, March 8, 2010

The Need To Hit Bottom

It is said of people who live with addictions of various sorts that they cannot start to recover from the ravages of their problem until they have hit bottom. Hitting bottom is generally a state of affairs that does not look good to an outsider, hitting bottom means that the addict has lost all self respect, has no friends, no money and no way to look after themselves. Then and only then are they ready to start up the slow, painful path to recovery. Unfortunately there are some economic observers who draw the same analogy for American consumers.

I am not, as a rule, fond of the term "consumer" for Americans who live and work and spend money but it is the term preferred by our leaders to describe us at the bottom of the ant heap and to some extent in this case it is an accurate enough term. Rolfe Winkler writing for Reuters on a discussion of how to extricate ourselves from this mess discusses proposals to corral bank lending backed by the public purse, and yet Winkler's commentary is centered on just how much pain we the workers will have to go through to get things re-organized, as though the banksters are blameless.

Interestingly the Institute does not blame the great unwashed for the lack of action on serious financial reforms. But they do argue (they being Elizabeth Warren, George Soros and Eliot Spitzer among many others) that lack of visible protest in the US, unlike in Europe, is a big reason why politicians have not yet felt obliged to fight back against the corporate lobbyists. Winkler says, in the March 4th article in Reuters, that too many people have too much to lose. There are still lots of people who are afraid of losing their jobs and in the current free fall job losses are of greater concern than reforming the failed and STILL thieving banking system.

In terms of addiction then, we could say that American workers still need their credit fix, and to sort out the banking system the thinkers at the Roosevelt Institute argue that credit will have to be squeezed so tight nothing will move. Without a shut down of the credit system they say we will continue to see a stagnating economic system, until the bad assets on the banks books are cleared up. However if we shut down the credit flow, such as it is, even more jobs will be lost.

It may be that we the people are not yet ready to face the ultimate pain of a true Depression, but it seems odd to me to blame the people who have been given the least information to work with, the people who have been lied to the most, and who are not expected, by those in power, to have the fortitude to take what's coming. I wonder of the bankers, the people who landed us in this mess have the guts to take their medicine, because so far they have shown no sign of being able or willing to do so. And curiously, Rolfe Winkler doesn't seem to think they should be punished. He is far more keen to see how much we can be made to writhe:

Yet the most vocal supporters of financial reform, which should properly be called “lending reform,” also whine that banks and the government aren’t lending enough! But we can’t have it both ways.

Real reform means cutting lending, it means more jobs will be lost. And Americans aren’t yet willing to make that trade, no matter how mad they are about bailouts.

A reason we got substantive financial reform in the mid ’30s is that folks had nothing left to lose. Real output fell 30% peak to trough during the Great Depression.

During last year’s recession, output fell just 3%. We’ve still plenty to lose if you compare debt levels today with those leading up to the Depression.

That’s not to suggest that reform isn’t absolutely necessary. But the speakers at Roosevelt Institute’s conference did a disservice to their audience by not discussing the costs. Some even suggested the credit engine can magically be made to run at close to full speed even as it’s in the shop for repairs.

Luckily, Roosevelt is led by the very capable Johnson, who has no illusions about the costs of bank reform. He acknowledges that financial fixes will reduce lending and output, but speaks about the need to control the velocity of that decline. The test of his leadership, and of Roosevelt’s relevance, will be whether they can convince America to sacrifice for reform.

I say let's hang the banksters by their goolies, then reform the banking laws under the terms of the Volcker rule, and then lets start up lending again, on a rational basis. That should spread the pain around more fairly.

Beach Combing

A beautiful day, a lovely walk, a happy dog.

It has been the most bizarre prolonged winter in 30 years, with the weather alternating starkly between bouts of clouds and driving rain followed by a spell of intense cold at night (50/10 which is cold for around here) and cold brightly sunny days with temperatures in the 65/17 range. The sunny days are intensely beautiful but...those blue skies come at a price.I cannot bring myself to wear long pants but I do bundle up in a woolly jacket with a woolly hat provided courtesy of the knitting needles of Cousin Lyn in Chicago. It strikes me as absurd that I am getting cold weather care packages from Illinois to get me through this endless Keys winter.Ironies abound this winter all across the land with snow melting and bringing an early spring to Alaska, and the late unlamented Olympic Games in British Columbia being forced to truck snow to the circus. A peculiar extravagance that seems horribly at odds with our unemployment and lack of economic prospects south of the 49th parallel. And yet in the Keys we see some effects from the chaos Up North, there are lots of homes for sale, many of them likely on offer owing to foreclosures but homes have been traded like baseball cards in the Keys for the last couple of decades. Streets everywhere have been littered with For Sale signs, only nowadays I tend to see more houses, particularly outside Key West itself, showing signs of neglect with weedy yards and streaking damp spots on the walls.Yet the tourist flow is absolutely amazing. Highway One frequently appears to be one long line of cars, SUVs, pick up trucks and motorcycles all heading into and out of the Keys. Sitting at the end of our side street can be an exercise in Zen patience turning left to go to Key West. While these long droning lines of traffic traveling well below the speed limit would try the patience of a saint, they are a testament to the resilience of the Key West tourist market. Hotel room prices have dropped since the crazy prices of the boom years but visitors are coming and filling them. People are shopping and taking tours, and while there have been layoffs I'm told there is none of the devastation apparent in many communities elsewhere.Florida's State budget is in better shape than the real estate market might indicate. This is a state that relies on property taxes and sales taxes to fund public services and while incomes have dropped the shortfalls so far seem manageable. naturally this is a Republican dominated state so the burden of meeting the budget requirements will be borne by the poor and there is no chance gaping holes in the sales tax structure will be plugged. Nevertheless Governor Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican had actually planned to increase the state budget this year relying on expansion of Indian gaming, a proposal that was shot down by the part time legislature.These are subjects for me to ponder as I wander the mangrove stands on the southern end of Big Pine Key. It always surprises me when I find trash lurking in the bushes, tons of it, the sign of a throw way society. And around here on the shores of an island stuck out next to a major shipping channel trash comes from all over the world to wash up in the Keys. This bottle looked like it came from the Netherlands, so I suspect "bleek" is Dutch for bleach, but who knows? Perhaps the trash washed off one of those big Dutch flagged cruise ships whose names all end in "Dam." Which is how I feel when I see the plastic littering the mangroves.And what this is doing lying here being useless I'm sure I couldn't say:

Cheyenne, three months out of the pound still relishes her freedom and spends her walks sniffing everything she can get her nose to.The open ocean is just a few feet away through the the trees which are impenetrable. This part of Big Pine Key is not an area known for it's sandy beaches.Though further west I have found some rather nice isolated strands accessible by boat. Cheyenne and I wandered at random finding our way through the shrubs and bushes; it was a different sort of walk.
The dead trees made the scene look quite wintry.
This was not, for all it's beauty, the Garden of Eden in it's pristine state.
I wondered if a Koren long liner fishing boat was missing it's trash bags? Not all the trash has come a long way. I've ridden the Bonneville past this one: All this stuff comes from here. Tranquil and pristine isn't it?Not everything on this deserted strand is human made. Horseshoe crabs have come to us down the milennia unchanged we are told. The tail is their tool to right themselves when the waves flip them. This shell was quite empty underneath.
A conch ("konk") shell.
The fluorescent light tube and bottle were human made.Back where we started, a dog, a trail, a bright sunny day.Yes, I know we are on the brink of our own generation's Great Economic Depression, but for a little while it was just me, walking my dog on a classic Keys sort of beach.