Friday, December 9, 2011

Financial Mess

Michael Lewis is always an interesting writer, a noticeable result of his intriguing background, having studied in the London School of Economics, worked for Solomon Brothers, an undergraduate degree in art history, some years spent in the art world, giving him a certain perspective that is both intellectually rigorous but with a touch of frivolity.  His string of books on the financial crisis plus other works on baseball economics, football drama, his early days in the bonds market at Solomon, gives him the chops to write about finance and economics. He is no academic who writes dry tomes but goes straight to the jugular, making him a cross between an investigative hack and a daft professor, a playful vein with the light philosophical bent of the everyday man. His regular columns in Vanity Fair is one reason I like the magazine, his articles shrewdly a draft of future books to come, making him an appealing writer to readers with a level of education that can appreciate the finer points of finance or economics, but not pandering to the academic side but to the area that would stimulate the most attention without losing sight of his goal.

His recent article was on the looming crisis in states and municipalities, focusing on California as THE place in dire straits with the potential to bankrupt the whole country, with towns and cities declaring insolvency such as the town of Vallejo near San Francisco. He starts his article with an interview with the former California governor, the action star Arnold Schwarzenegger - now that’s a brilliant start, describing how a movie actor has tried to reform the state but failing to lead either the citizens or the Republican or Democratic politicians, achieving only minor victories during his term. His article starts with an early morning bike ride with Arnold along the roads near Venice beach where the former muscle man started as a brick layer before his eventual stardom in body building, movies and politics, ending up as governor in one of the greatest states of the union, right smack into a financial crisis for the ages, a story that describes the symptoms affecting the whole country; declining revenues with the poor economy, unfunded pension and health care benefits, obscenely rising salaries, a militant citizenry who expects a lot of service without paying for it, all resulting in a nightmare scenario that will still play out in the future.

What a brilliant start, the bike ride with Arnold, the warning from a respected financial analyst Meredith Whitney, interviews with the mayors of San Jose and the manager of Vallejo, plus a fire chief and a professor at a university . According to the professor, the financial mess is a cultural problem, Americans have no way to respond moderately in an age of abundance, the seeds of collapse seen in the success of their modern society, resulting in obesity and debt, wherein the a map of the country displaying the highest incidence of obesity are also the places with the highest foreclosures and bankruptcies, attributing the financial problem to a psychological problem, the modern mind still following the lizard brain, a fear of scarcity despite the wealth, gorging in food because of the fear the food will disappear (perhaps eaten by some predator in the cave man age). It’s a brilliant analysis that provide a psychological basis for the economic problem, something that most citizenry do not ascribe to, with tea party movement calling for lesser government, or the occupy Wall Street movements assailing big banks, not realizing that the enemy is within ourselves, not the government or the big corporations, these entities just living out the desires of their misguided employees.

This brings me back to my predicament, the insatiable curiosity that leaves out any productive endeavor, forever distracted by multiple desires, perhaps a reflection of the culture, influenced by that insatiable lust for knowledge, but in fact driven by fear, fear of missing something, of being ignorant, of lacking the skills to be a good worker, forever striving until nothing is really achieved. Is this the influence of modern culture? , being a consumer of media but in fact a willing victim to its materialism, unable to focus but to keep consuming, whether it is food resulting in obesity, or media resulting in anxiety or a bent toward procrastination; the true sin being an unquenchable urge to consume until one becomes bloated in mind and body. The professor in the article relates a true story of a pheasant he observed during a stay at Blenheim Palace, a bird that lived in a well-nourished field, which ate itself into obesity that he could no longer fly and disappeared one day because a fox ate him, unable to take to the air naturally as in the past, a victim of his own gluttony. Perhaps that is the fate of the modern writer who is unable to write, forever procrastinating as he tries to be better, reading more books, watching movies all in a conscious attempt to learn more and feed his creativity, but instead lost in a merry go round of distraction.

From this perspective, the solution seems to be straight forward and simple, to live a moderate life of austerity and humility, avoiding unnecessary distraction, consuming only that which is necessary for survival, a philosophical way of life that will restore sanity. Such a plain solution, the key to living for the ages, answering the problems of the financial mess of bankruptcy and foreclosure, of procrastination and unending consumption, but something actually difficult to do because most people do not internalize the fix, but blame an outside force like the government, the banks, Wall Street. Of course there’s a grain of truth as these organizations are made of flawed men, their failures becoming the failure of the whole entity until the way of doing things becomes a culture, influencing a whole country until everyone want to become like America. One wonders if that’s the true dream, the Arab spring as a way to achieve this so-called dream, perhaps that’s one lesson being learned but recent elections have brought victory to the Islamist and one wonders if a back lash is coming, perhaps a return to conservative lifestyles that fundamentalist groups in the both the East and West seem to want but with the skewed results of extremism.

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