Saturday, October 8, 2011

VOR’s Turn: We’re Quarreling On The Beach While The Tsunami Roars In

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine wit...

Image by Urban Mixer via Flickr

Author Michael Lewis is one of those authors who tends to spot trends and developments ahead of mere mortals, and who then comes out with a book which is both prescient and fascinating; as well as being thoroughly entertaining.

I’ve been reading him for years. He is an acute observer, has a nice dry sense of humor, and is extremely well informed. He is also the author of the current hit movie, MONEYBALL which stars Brad Pitt. He has a nose for the quirky.

His latest book is called BOOMERANG and makes the case that both the U.S. and Europe are in a great deal more trouble than we think; and that things are going to get worse before they get better.

I haven’t yet read the book, but courtesy of Barry Ritholtz’s outstandingly good blog, THE BIG PICTURE, watched a video interview with Lewis. He delivered his grim news with a great charm and a smile. He’s an engaging man.

He used phrases like “A fraying of a sense of common purpose,” and “moral breakdown” when referring to our current situation.

I happen to think he is right, and am amazed that there isn’t more of a sense of a sense of crisis and urgency, and national self-analysis. Instead we’re quarreling on the beach while the tsunami roars in. And make no mistake about it, it is coming.

I’m reluctant to use phrases like “moral breakdown” because I think they sound preachy, but there is something very wrong with our core values right now; and the problem is pervasive. The banks almost certainly represent the worst of such behavior, but it’s hard to find another sector in the U.S. where greed and egregious consumerism haven’t got out of hand. Essentially, we’ve evolved into an “anything is justified in pursuit of profit” society, which is rapidly becoming bereft of moral standards and decency. Cheating at school is widespread, and behavior just gets worse from there on. And our current corporate culture is socially irresponsible, deeply corrupt and not infrequently criminal. And the major corporations own Congress; and are scarcely subtle about the fact.

There are exceptions, of course – and hopefully many - but the trend seems to be a progression from the nasty to the nastier with the Financial Sector (which soaks up 30-40 percent of corporate profits) setting the tone. But Wall Street has plenty of company in the race to the bottom.

It’s sad because this country has enormous strengths and is inhabited, in many cases, by thoroughly  agreeable people. But something is deeply wrong; and the most alarming thing is that so few are admitting to it, or are doing anything about it. And many are complicit. Why not! They/We are only doing what everyone else seems to be doing. Lying, cheating and stealing is becoming the cultural norm; and if you stand up and object, you are likely to lose your job.

My sense is that economic insecurity and fear are making a major contribution to our moral collapse. People are not at their best when frightened. And people definitely are frightened, and with very good reason, because the way of life we thought we had, with its built-in economic securities, re-assuring professionals, and bright future is proving to be – in many ways – a fraud.

Your job is no longer safe; your bank savings earn virtually no interest; your 401K has been trashed; health costs have got out of hand; a defined pension is near impossible to get; and your social safety net – if anything does go wrong – is the worst in the developed world. And, unless you are rich, forget sending your kids to college without life-crushing debt.

How could this be happening to the richest county in the world? In truth, if you allow greed to get out of hand, it’s inevitable; especially when social cohesion – trust - is replaced by ignorance and selfishness.

Author Michael Lewis put it another way. He said that “our lizard brains” seem to be taking over.

America should be – desperately needs to be – better than this.




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