Our money pays for all of it

Published 10:09 am Monday, April 6, 2009

A colleague in Spain writes he is trying to make sense of what he is reading about the economic crisis here and asks for my informal assessment. He relieves me of responsibility by qualifying with “informal,” because I really don’t know. I, too, am puzzled. My response, following, is not actually to answer his inquiry but to help both him and me to begin to think things through toward a working perspective. Please join us.

There has undoubtedly been greed at the top of real estate, financial institutions, and other corporations. This much is obvious and well documented. Less obvious and harder to measure and document is a different level of greed reaching to the very bottom. Greed, mind you, knows no socio-economic limitations. Individual consumers/employees made financial commitments in purchases by credit based on questionable ability to pay with both husband and wife working overtime. They took mortgages on houses that exceeded the recommended proportion of income. All that was needed for financial ruin was to cut back to just full-time hours. Worse if one lost a job.

Lenders pressed them to increase loan requests to the maximum, and borrowers fell for it. Not only could they not keep up with required payments, when they went to liquidate the property, they found its possible sale price had fallen beneath the balance due on their mortgage—if they could sell at all.

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They took second mortgages to pay for luxuries unrelated to sustainability. Some who had actually retired mortgages turned around and obtained another for the same reasons. Lenders have been socially irresponsible not only in allowing this foolishness but actually encouraging it. This would be judged criminal if the law hadn’t allowed it.

Not all lay-offs are straightforward responses to the current crisis, at least not yet. Fearing what may lie in the future, many have reassessed their employment structure and recognized years of unnecessary hires, which could be tolerated in better times but are not now worth the risk.

They never actually needed this number of employees, but they indulged managers who received incomes related to the number of employees supervised. They exploit widespread lay-offs across the board as an excuse to cut out fat.

This might be smart management, but it breaks faith with promises made upon hiring.

Government has for several years been relaxing regulations on business that had been enacted to prevent or discourage exactly what is happening now. The Bush administration failed to recognize what was about to happen to the economy, but almost all the harmful relaxing of regulations began during the Clinton administration. The Obama administration is frantically attempting to shore up the economy by bail-outs. But it does not know what it is actually doing, what specific things might be achieved, or where this is going to lead. It is shooting from the hip almost at random and with eyes open no more than a squint.

None of the current corporate bail-outs will ever be paid for by the government, but by the people from whom it receives revenue: taxpayers. Us. Government is being “kind” to private businesses with your money and mine. It is just that government hasn’t yet told us how much we must pay and when.

Candidate Obama criticized President Bush, with a good deal of validity, for not having an exit strategy from the war in Iraq. I look for an exit strategy from Obama’s economic stimulus package.

Congress is posturing politically rather than acting creatively. Its members self-righteously scorn CEOs of doing what is only the corporate equivalent of the self-serving nonsense they have been doing right along.

The president is earnest and sincere, but he is no messiah.

We may be in the tribulation but there is no millennium in sight. We can’t count on the Lord’s return to save us, and we can’t even count on our income tax refunds.

That’s what it looks like from here and right now.

I’d love to be wrong.