The socialization of America; a war loss…

October 14, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

I think our economy is fundamentally unsound and what we are doing now, the bailouts and what amounts to a partial nationalization or socialization of the economy by our government, will only act as a band-aid or a pill that at best will temporarily mask the symptoms of what ails us.

Admittedly I know little of economics, but like most of us, it has been so much in the news these past several weeks and in so much detail, I feel like after all these years I really do understand some of the fundamentals.

Before I go any further, I would suggest reading a piece by Harvard lecturer and economist and Libertarian Jeffrey Miron, now posted on CNN While I have never thoroughly bought into libertarianism, I think that they seem to be the only true conservatives (and they are liberal on social issues, although not government involvement in social issues).

Back to my thoughts: I will wander here, as I sometimes do. But last night while I was trying to read a novel, I had the TV on low and caught a portion of some finance commentators from Britain, I believe. They read an e-mail from someone who complained about the bailouts and also noted that he began his career as a gofer for some financial firm in 1969 at $129 (American) per week. “Now these guys come out of college and think they should start at $200,000 per year.”

Wandering still: I note that Barack Obama has the political guts or maybe savvy to concede in his stump speech that although a lot of our problems are caused by greed and malfeasance on Wall Street, there is also blame to those on Main Street, so to speak, who knew they were getting in over their heads and did it anyway. I think he is being honest there and is also trying to appeal to the centrists, much as I believe Bill Clinton often did. I recall that at one time during his presidency Clinton was referred to as a centrist or maybe even a slightly conservative or “new” Democrat.

Whatever, he supposedly balanced the budget and left office with a surplus. Actually I think that is a lot of accounting trickery that both the major parties engage in, such as when they propose new spending, then cut that proposed new spending slightly and claim they have reduced government spending. This charade is aided and abetted by the news media, which in some cases does not understand what is going on and in others just settles for it because to do otherwise takes too many paragraphs of explanation.

All that aside, Clinton was aided by a robust economy, the Dot Com bubble, as I recall, was a big part of it. But under Clinton the federal budget was balanced (in governmentspeak anyway) and Welfare reform was enacted, something you would have expected Republicans to do.

Bush came into office promising to keep taxes low (especially for folks who could most afford to pay them in the first place) and to loosen government control on free enterprise. He now prepares to leave office while presiding over the biggest socialization of government since Franklin Delano Roosevelt (maybe bigger).

It seems that a lot of the laissez faire free enterprise folks, to include George W., don’t have the courage of their convictions. To be sure, this bailout and nationalization stuff has caused a split in the GOP, which will in part to be blamed for John McCain losing the election, as he at this time seems destined to do. I still think he could win if the stock market were to stay up and gasoline prices kept falling, and if there were to be some attack on the nation or if as I read in another blog that the Bush Administration is able to announce that Osama Bin Laden has been caught. Now this does not make sense. But the voting record of the American electorate is often driven by fear and emotion. This time around it does seem,though, that folks – the Palin contingent aside – seem to be looking at things more thoughtfully and more people are taking part.

What I meant to say in this blog and did not get around to, is that our economy is fundamentally unsound because we (as a nation) have spent too much time consuming and not enough time making. When we get back to the making, which we are quite capable of doing, conditions will improve greatly, I feel. When we get back to investing in our own nation and not industry elsewhere and not in nation building in the Middle East, things will turn around.

Still wandering, but I fear that all of this government infusion into the economy is going to lead to wild inflation. I just heard an economic pundit on TV say that he thinks we are in danger of going into something worse than the Great Depression. We’ll have high unemployment but unlike the Great Depression, we’ll also have inflation.

Wouldn’t it have been better to let the investment banks and other banks fail and be replaced by new bankers who would operate like the bankers of old, prudently?

And finally, I want to jump to the subject of war. In all of this economic upheaval we have forgotten about the wars we are fighting.

Unlike Vietnam (something a couple of generations now have no memory of), there is no draft and the numbers of casualties and troops involved are much smaller (but no less important). But people are dying and being gravely wounded and none of us really know what for, beyond the jingoistic phrases of “fighting terror” or “fighting for freedom”, that have no thought behind them.

I want to mention this because I was thinking about a boyhood acquaintance that dates back to first through fifth grade. He had a stutter, and beyond that I can only describe him as the typical all-American boy. He probably did not do well in school (I don’t know. Our family moved after fifth grade). I recall going over to his house and a bunch of us kids playing on the slip and slide he had just got. I often think back to those kids because it was a time when we were all so happy, free and easy, with no responsibilities (at least I didn’t have any).

I had just got through entertaining my youngest daughter with my memories of that kid who stuttered (not about his stutter, just the fun) and went back into the house to go on the computer. Quite by chance I ran across his name. He died as a Marine in Vietnam from enemy fire.

None of us knew what that war was all about either, except something about fighting for the cause of freedom, and yet no one was freed, except from life on earth.

Free marketers hoisted by own petard…

September 30, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

Something occurred to me. If we really do have a free market economy then government would have nothing to do with it. It would make no difference who is president of the United States. Well we must not have had a free market economy since I have been alive because it seems as if the economy is usually the number one issue in presidential races, sometimes trumped by war. And if the economy is good, the president gets the credit.

An exception might be Bill Clinton’s presidency. He was re-elected, but then because he could not by law serve a third term, Al Gore ran. Even though the economy had been great by all accounts, Gore ran a super close race with George W. Bush (you’d of thought he should have won by a landslide with the good economy under his party’s presidency). Although Gore did receive more votes, due to a quirk in our election laws, namely the Electoral College, and some questionable ballots, and finally a Supreme Court ruling, Bush won. However, the economy was showing signs of weakening in the waning days of the Clinton presidency, as I recall.

And while this time we have the housing bust, at the end of the Clinton terms it was the Dot Com bust. Both the result of a runaway economy and wild speculation.

What I am trying to get at here is that it is apparent that we have a fairly free economy, but government involvement for most of our memories and especially since 1929, has always been there.

For most of the last four decades, since the time of Barry Goldwater, the Republicans have been led or led around by the conservatives, who pretend to want as little government involvement in the economy as possible. Of course they like special tax favors for their investments and they like various other “incentives” for their investments, but they somehow don’t see that as government intervention. They do see environmental controls for such silly things as clean air and clean water as government intervention. And don’t even talk about good working conditions for employees, such as provided by health and safety regulations.

Then when it looks like the economic freight train is going to derail, suddenly George W. Bush, who had practically claimed himself as the mother of all conservatives, through his treasury secretary calls for the most massive government intervention in history, a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street. That kind of caught everyone by surprise. The hard corps conservative Republicans in the House didn’t know what to think, I suppose. It sounded like something that might be called for by a Democrat. Then to add insult to injury a plan was pushed through, over a weekend as I recall, without even consulting them. But I wonder if they would have not voted for it nonetheless, I mean Republicans don’t usually turn down what I would call corporate welfare (not to be confused with welfare for folks who need it – that’s the realm of the Democrats). But then the e-mails and phone calls came in from the constituents, and in a rare sign of power to the people (something that sounds left wing) they, the right wing, found themselves for political reasons forced to vote no, even after they had supposedly gotten major reforms from the original draft, and their own leadership told them to vote yes.

Now we are in the interesting and kind of amusing position of seeing a split among the Republican ranks. There’s also a rift in the Democratic ranks over the issue too. But could it be that the Republicans are now being hoisted by their own petard of free market economy and no government intervention? And why are they accusing the Democrats of defeating the bill, when Republicans failed to deliver enough votes themselves?

I think the naysayers on both sides of the aisle are hoping that something awful will happen, and maybe Monday’s stock market plummet was awful enough or only the beginning of that something awful. Each party wants to blame each other for the woe and misery and then feel like they are forced to vote for the bill or a revised bill, and then get the credit. That’s the trouble. A lot of lawmakers are more worried about credit for something than saving the populace from major financial calamity.

There’s duplicity among both the Democrats and Republicans in Monday’s defeat of the bailout bill. I’ve already mentioned the position of the Republican holdouts. But now I just saw an interview with Democratic congresswoman Sheila Jackson of Texas. She said she voted no because there was not enough relief in the bill for folks on Main Street. But she blamed the Republicans who promised to deliver yes votes for the bill’s defeat (what about her no vote and the no votes from her own Democrats?). So, she wants the cover of voting no on something seen as a giveaway to Wall Street, then be able to blame the Republicans if things really do go as bad as predicted without a bill.

There is an interesting article in Time online by two economists who say the bailout is the wrong approach.

Before the vote, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi gave heck to the Republicans for the mess that had been caused under their administration. Now of course that was politics, making sure the taxpayers knew that the Democrats were forced to vote for such an extraordinary and costly measure by Republican mismanagement and noting the hypocrisy of free marketers (Bush and Co.) demanding government intervention. The Republican holdouts in the House claimed afterwards that they were insulted, using that as cover for their deed. It gave them an excuse to vote no, as if they were calling Pelosi’s bluff and saying no we don’t want government intervention, and look like they were standing up for the taxpayers at the same time, probably knowing they would eventually vote for a bill. Or, for all I know the bailout as proposed just goes against their grain.

It’s pretty apparent that in looking for who is at fault for the wild speculation and overdrawing and over extension of credit there is plenty of blame to go all around, from the profligate ways of individual citizens to the irresponsible business practices of the investment community. And certainly both Democrats and Republicans have contributed. For example, both parties wanted Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to dole out mortgages big time to keep the economy flying high. The Republican constituency was primarily among those who lent the money and the Democratic constituency was both those who lent and borrowed. Well, let’s face it, both parties really serve the interests of money, but they have different philosophies or approaches.

Many economists are saying that some type of bailout bill must go through and go through ASAP and at least one economist I read said that the whole idea of a bailout in wrongheaded, that the market needs to correct itself. He said that bankruptcies will be part of that correction, that often companies are taken over by other companies in bankruptcies. One flaw in that logic is that often when a business goes bankrupt jobs disappear and never come back.

We are in the unfortunate position of having all this happen with a lame duck president, who as you can see is powerless – it’s a pitiful sight. He deserves this. But we as a nation don’t (or maybe we do). And we are a little more than a month before an election and a few months more until new leadership takes over.

Maybe we just need emergency action by the Federal Reserve to pump liquidity into the system and the FDIC to protect bank deposits in the interim and allow the time that might be needed for truly better legislation to repair and reform the economy.

No one seems to know what will happen in the meantime. We probably have to almost experience total disaster before we know what to do. Kind of an economic Pearl Harbor. But we can’t depend upon the leadership of Bush. Been there, done that.

About Sarah: don’t dis, disagree….

September 24, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

Bill Clinton has it 100 percent right this time. He said that Democrats should lay off taking personal jabs at Sarah Palin. They should just say they disagree with her positions.

Then again, once you elevate someone up to the status of  they are worth disagreeing with, you have possibly given them status they don’t deserve. I said that. But, really, strategy wise, Bill has a point.

Also, there is no doubt she has caught the popular imagination as a down home folksy and gutsy woman (if a little vapid at times) who can handle the task given her, by golly.

But again, do we really want her to be (vice) president? (Worse yet, do you want McCain?)

Some folks seemed to think George W. Bush had that down home quality (I never did). Hard to see why. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and is more East Coast than Texas and is just not terribly bright and not terribly articulate, although he has come along well in his speech lessons over these past eight years – still stumbles a little, but much better. But I don’t care for the message.

… Meanwhile, it appears the rescue-bailout plan may not be a done deal, with congress and many voters saying “not so fast.” I know I personally have never gone for the high pressure sale, you have to make a decision now! Why?

And now a report on the network news says that McCain is in the driver’s seat on the rescue package because if he votes against it other Republicans will follow suit and the bill will go down to defeat (ouch! I hate when that happens!). Of course then if the economy goes down the tubes he takes the blame. But McCain is a gambler. I’ll bet he either wants to vote no and look like the hero who stood up not only to his commie captors in Hanoi but to the fat cats on Wall Street, or make a yes vote contingent on some high flyers doing a perp walk (or something tantamount to that). McCain smells blood. An FBI investigation has been announced already.

Obama has little choice but to vote yes, but insist that there is something for the people, mortgage help, etc., in it (well beyond keeping the business machine from collapsing).

And he is probably stuck with his cerebral and cool and just a little insistent pose. I think McCain has the ownership on the I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore stance.

Many of us are basically just watching in wonderment. Should we be mad? Should we be afraid?

And here’s something that bothers me. Why can’t we do this thing from the bottom up. If $700 billion or more can be handed over to Wall Street, why not instead take that same amount of money and use it to help people renegotiate their mortgages, stay in their homes and do the things homeowners do, buy all those consumer goods for the house. That would help more people and would do a far better job to stimulate the economy one would think.

Wall Street’s track record was to invest and reinvest and re-re-invest in real estate, wildly inflating the prices and then the bubble burst.

And now I heard on TV Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson admit that under the terms of the rescue plan foreign banks would be allowed to get American taxpayer money. That in and of itself  seems wrong (even allowing foreigners pump a lot of money into our economy). But I have read that a lot of the capital in the mortgage market came from the Middle East. Those oil rich nations invest in housing here but don’t help their own people. No wonder there is so much unrest in the Middle East.

Oh those Arabs who say they care so much about Palestine. Why don’t they pump money into the Palestinian territory and make it a Garden of Eden that would rival Israel? 

… And another plug for investing domestically into alternative energy. I read about a paper mill in Maine that may go out of business because of the cost of oil. A subsidiary paper plant uses wood debris left over from logging to power itself. But installing that capability at the larger plant is seen as too expensive. But what if the government didn’t pay for that outright but offered an incentive for investment? It would cut down on dependence on foreign oil and save jobs right here at home.

…. Just a thought: during the Bush administration there has been a convenient excuse for Republicans not to support social programs, besides the fact that is not in their nature, there is the costly war thing. Now with the need to spend a trillion dollars or more on corporate welfare, sorry guys just can’t afford all that military action (now of course no one would haggle over war funding if we were actually repelling invaders. Then again, we’d rather fight them over there than here. Maybe we should send up a star ship to mars with troops – the Martians might be plotting against us. Let’s invoke the Bush Doctrine – definition for you Sarah, that means we have a ready excuse to go to war anywhere anytime).

There’s a popular saying:

“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

That’s catchy, but I’d transpose it, you might say:

“If you’re part of the problem, you’re not part of the solution.”

Okay, what I mean is that it is hard to believe that the folks who got us into this financial crisis, at least some of them, are now the ones who are working on this historic, earth shattering plan for the U.S. government to gobble up untold Wall Street bad debts, to the tune of $1 trillion or more (first it was $500 billion, then 700 billion, and some suggest $1 trillion, which may include the most recent bailouts or may be beyond that – I really can’t keep track).

So virtually all of the players in this rescue scheme took part directly or were closely associated with the modern financial activity that got us into this mess. It all has to do with ever more clever and complex ways to slice and dice securities, especially mortgage securities, in order to sell and resell and sell and resell, and that’s all well and good until something happens to put a monkey wrench in to the works, such as adjustable rate mortgages adjusting too high and spikes in the cost of living and unemployment and finally foreclosures when the person at the bottom doesn’t pay. That triggers a chain reaction that in the past week or so has threatened to bring our whole economy down and even the world’s economy down, since everything is interconnected in this grand global market. Gee maybe that’s what they mean by the “new world order.”

All of this is so complex that no one really knows what will or could happen.

So now we know that all those hot-shot money experts that have been barking at us to do this and buy this and so on, are not so smart after all – that is unless some of them are telling us to do one thing but are doing the opposite behind our backs, selling us short, you might say. I wonder sometimes.

I continue to wonder in my non-economic mind what the cost would be to do nothing, to let risk takers lose. Would that be an end to risk takers? No, because there would be even more of a risk and probably more of a gain than bailing everyone out now but instituting even tighter regulation to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

And in a previous blog I mentioned that you could call all this absorption of losses at public expense a form of socialism, but that it also resembles fascism.

Then I read in the San Francisco Chronicle today a piece that seemed to agree with me, and that always gives me a thrill when someone actually agrees with me or I think of something that someone else was thinking too. And now I can’t find the article…

At any rate, if the government assumes such a large direct stake in the economy as proposed, the action resembles both socialism or communism as practiced by the old Soviet Union with its state-owned and directed economy and fascism as it was practiced under Hitler by the Nazi party in Germany, with the state working hand in hand with business and exerting total control over the economy and the life of everyday individuals. As has been often noted, there is no difference between the far left and the far right, they both seek to use government to control people’s lives. And now I have answered my own earlier question as to how a Republican administration could be in the once inconceivable position of taking over a large part of our economy.

We could do little to nothing, or we could at least take the slow, but sure approach.

Congress has not blinked so far. One senator I saw on C-Span asked for an explanation, saying that he did not understand because he was just an “old dirt farmer.” 

I guess he didn’t want to buy a pig in a poke.

Shouldn’t lend money just to make money…

September 23, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

So I suppose it’s all but a done deal with only some haggling to be done on the details. The federal government will assume a trillion dollars or more worth of bad debt and it will be unfair in that the big shots will be bailed out and the individual will be left to slog it out on his own or actually will do his part to finance the whole thing via taxes and an economy drug down by government debt.

Somehow as unfair and bad as it is, I think the country will get along and it may actually be an opportunity to reassess and get it right.

I know so little about economics it’s not worth me wasting words on this screen, but that won’t stop me.

Just saw former president Bill Clinton on Dave Letterman, and while I will always resent what Mr. Clinton did to bring shame to the cause of good government by his own personal actions, I have to admit he is a highly intelligent and perceptive and articulate person and we would have been no doubt better off if he could have served past a second term.

He said a lot about the economy and gave I think a reasonable explanation of what has gone wrong, and believe it or not he did not do a lot of finger pointing. He did say that the government has to step in but he also called for a program to help stem the tide of foreclosures. He said if that doesn’t happen the problem that caused the collapse of lending markets will persist – people reneging on their mortgages which in turn makes the mortgage-based securities used in the financial trade worthless (now I just kind of paraphrased there and added some elements of what I got in an earlier conversation from someone who understands this all better than I, plus what I have read over the past week).

Clinton, as is his wont, said a lot, but one thing I took away loud and clear, something that has occurred to me before all of this: “we have to quit loaning money just to make more money.”

Clinton said that there was an over investment in real estate. He suggested that government incentives could make other investments, such as so-called “green energy”, attractive and would create jobs that would in turn, among other things, help people buy homes and make good on their mortgages.

And my position is that while the money traders on Wall Street no doubt provide a necessary element in the economy – they help in the free flow of capital – at some point we have to be producing things and employing people in the effort to produce things. We can’t sustain a high standard of living for the broader public on an economy based solely on importing products made elsewhere and low level service jobs to provide comfort for just part of society.

On principle, I am against the bailouts that have taken place. But I am not the one that makes the decisions. I would rather see the nation move forward than come to a standstill and point the fingers of blame. Let’s learn from the mistakes and move on.

There needs to be more regulation on lending and borrowing and financing with complex instruments that may represent no or little real equity.

Above all, there needs to be more savings, and it seems such cannot come about until there is more incentive to save. Lower interest rates may be good for borrowing and business investments, but they don’t provide the motivation to save. On the other hand, if interests rates are too high that stifles business, but the more money folks make on savings the more they are liable to save and the more capital that will be available to borrow, and that in itself brings down interest rates somewhat, almost a vicious cycle to be sure. And that may be why there needs to be sound government involvement to keep things on an as even a keel as possible without upsetting the whole system.

It seems strange that after the tragedy of 9/11 the nation was urged to go out and spend money. Most of that money, due to our import-driven economy, goes overseas. We’d have been better off to put more of that money in savings and investments in our own country. We are now fighting wars in the Middle East and having to buy a huge amount of oil from the Mid East to do that. A lot of that oil money no doubt inadvertently goes to fund the very forces we are fighting. A lot of our money also goes to China, from which we borrow, and to which we pay so much for imports. While we try to maintain good relations with China, it is our main rival in the world today.

In my last blog, I wrote that I was beginning to like Ron Paul’s Libertarian ideas. I do. But I know he is not going to be elected. He’s not even on the ballot. Besides, he’s too old. So is John McCain. In addition, McCain has admitted economics is not his strong point. I fear that anyone he would have advise him would be like the advisers Bush has had, ones who have an agenda, an agenda that is aimed more at their own ability to make money than the overall economic health of the nation.

Barack Obama puts off the aura that says he is intelligent, wants to listen to others, and can reason things out.

I want to think that McCain means well, but he does not inspire the feeling in me that he has the patience or even the ability to weigh the complex issues that the next president faces.

There is a chance that the government will in the end come out ahead in this debt assumption because it would eventually be able to sell off assets after things stabilize. That is hard to get one’s arms around – how you make good on worthless paper.

I’ve always read about how cheap things were in the Great Depression, because since few had money to buy things, demand was low, prices were low.

But I recall the 1970s. Wages for many were stagnant, the whole economy was stagnant. And yet, prices went up and up. It was called “stagflation.” I hope we are not headed for that again, but with the current mess, it seems ever more possible. If markets remain in turmoil the flow of capital will be shut off and without that there will be little business activity and high unemployment. But the cost of things like food and oil, according to current conditions, will continue to rise. Yup, stagflation.

I suppose the cost of doing nothing could be long years of suffering, maybe even a depression bigger than the Great Depression.

Let’s hope the cost of doing something does not cause similar pain.

“Lion of the Left” is now Lompoc bound….

August 28, 2008

(Copyright 2008)


By Tony Walther

Probably the blog I shouldn’t bother to write, but I feel I have to comment about one of the few counters to right-wing hate radio, Bernie Ward, formerly of KGO Radio in San Francisco.

The “Lion of the Left” as they called him, was sentenced today  to more than seven years in federal prison, to be served at Lompoc, Ca., a minimum security facility. He was convicted on numerous counts of distributing child pornography via the internet.

He had maintained he was doing “research” on a story, but I guess it seems as he had done a little too much “research.” I didn’t follow the whole story closely, but I heard that he had had some problems previously (don’t know for sure about that). He had been a Catholic priest at one time.

The point is this. It is always disturbing when someone who has been such a spokesperson for a point of view gets discredited on moral grounds. The worst example in modern history I think is Bill Clinton. Now he did not have to go to prison and he did not do anything illegal or quite as disgusting (oh, I guess he may have committed perjury, maybe).

In Clinton’s case, the tragedy is that he gave the other side (extreme right wing) such ammunition against progressives and liberals and anyone who is not extreme right wing everywhere.

The extreme right wing, neocon, even fascist-like politics of the last decade or two has been largely supported by the ubiquitousness of right-wing super cynical don’t let the facts get in the way radio and the void of any other point of view on the airwaves, to include middle of the road.

Ward filled that void. He was extreme left. I often did not agree with his extremism. However, I appreciated his analytical ability and his handle on events. As I drove a big truck down the road in the middle of the night, he was the first one to give me a heads up on the fact that George W was taking us into Iraq and that was before 9/11, as I recall. Bush was looking for an excuse and he found one (and I don’t want to get into the merits of that argument).

I should also mention, Ward was a tremendously successful fund raiser for causes mostly dealing with feeding the poor.

But as I blogged once before, I did always notice something creepy about Bernie Ward, usually when he discussed drugs and sex.

Then one night he casually mentioned that he might be in trouble for something involving research on a story or book he was writing concerning child pornography. It was kind of like, hey I had to look at it to do the research, would they put a policeman or a prosecutor in jail for looking at the evidence? I didn’t think much of it at the time and then was shocked when I heard that he had been arrested and charged (and I may have been the only one shocked; I don’t know).

I do know this: he reached millions of people all over the U.S. because of KGO’s strong nighttime signal (50,000 watts, I believe). He was also becoming a fixture on TV talking head panels because of the oddity of a far left mouthpiece these days (or anyone that is not far right).

It seems plausible to me that he could have been set up by the feds. But he has pleaded guilty and apologized (maybe because to fight it would be hopeless and you can get better treatment and possible time shaved from your sentence if you say you’re repentant).

I suppose the fact is that he is just plain guilty of a terrible and disgusting and heinous crime.

Certainly he deserves what he gets if that is the case.

I wonder how much talking he did to authorities. He often counseled that the last thing you want to do when dealing with the law (police, prosecution) is talk, even if you are innocent. Keep your mouth shut, he said.

For Ward, that would have been hard to do.

P.S. I plan to blog in reaction to Barack Obama’s speech tonight.