Saturday, October 24, 2009

Proof of Entropy

Way back in early 2004, when I first started playing with a blog, I wrote a piece titled 'The Entropy of Capitalism'. Positing that Capitalism is constantly in a state of entropy. In other words, that without careful attention, it will naturally spiral into corruption and chaos. After the last year of financial ups and downs, I went back and re-read it. I found it just as valid now as it was then. Maybe more so. Certainly we have even more examples of how wrong our financial system can go in a short period of time.

I have always heard, from the Conservative side of the aisle, that the 'Free Market' is the way to go. That we should setup some basic, minimal guidelines and just let corporate America manage itself. After all, the Free Market will adjust. Right? Yeah, sure! I think we can finally put a fork in that particular bit of idiocy. Let's be clear. Capitalism runs on one thing, and one thing only . . . Greed. That one vice is the fuel that makes the whole thing work. Now, it's easy to say that greed is good and inspires people to work and push harder and that's true to a degree. But only to a point. Beyond that point it truly becomes one of the seven deadly sins.  And that is the problem. It can be deadly. Greed is a creature that will happily begin devouring itself and only discover the problem as it bleeds to death. And this is what our entire financial system is based on. Just look at Wall Street, everything is based on quarterly profits and growth. Quarter over quarter and year over year. Fail to keep your growth rate solid and, even if your company is stable and profitable, your stock will plummet. More, more, more. Now, now, now! Tell me how this system can be trusted? It's a gambling addict that we're told can be trusted to walk past the Bellagio with a $100 in his pocket.

Need examples? Junk bond collapse in the '80s. WorldCom. Enron, Maddoff, Mortgage crises, and this is just off the top of my non-economist head! Over and over this supposedly self-regulating financial system has attempted to devour itself. Either with monster corporations doing ridiculously stupid things or entire sectors of the economy succumbing to temporary insanity. Or in the case of Maddoff type incidents, people who are happy to destroy the lives of others, just to add to an already bulging bank account. Enough is NEVER enough. It might be different if these implosions only hurt those who took the risks, but the reverse is often true. In many cases, the masterminds behind these financial nightmares are little more than inconvenienced when things go south. These are the people who already have millions in personal wealth and iron clad, platinum parachutes. Thus allowing them to get out with only a slight tarnish on their reputations to show for the damage they've caused. Meanwhile, everyday people, i.e. the ones that do the actual work that generates corporate profits,  see life savings and jobs vanish almost overnight.

We would all like to think that the government might be of some use in reigning this in, but it's also part of the problem. Money has been corrupting politics more with each election. Campaigns that once cost candidates hundreds of thousands or maybe a million dollars now require tens of millions just to be in the running. Where does all this money come from? It certainly isn't from individuals, or at least not the majority of it. It's coming from corporate America. Individual companies and entire industries are dumping obscene amounts of money into the coffers of political candidates. Explain to me how this cannot provide a corrosive and corrupting influence on local and federal governments? How can a candidate not feel beholden to a corporate lobby that dumped massive amounts of money into their 'war chest'? It sure wasn't donated out of generosity. They expect 'their' candidate to support and protect them. Let them slide when they are under scrutiny and push through bills that benefit them. Now you might say that this is no different than any individual might want. Theoretically this is true. But how many families can inject a million dollars or more into a campaign and support dozens of highly paid, full time lobbyists? Do you note the imbalance?

The problem is that these corporations hold ridiculous amounts of sway on our political system. Totally swamping any grass-roots citizen movement. One of these groups might demonstrate and inspire letter writing campaigns to clean up pollution in a river, but how much chance do they stand against a huge chemical company who's spent decades cultivating close relationships with dozens or more members of Congress? Exactly. Experts can smile condescendingly and explain that Capitalism is a financial system and not a political one. But the truth is that this distinction is becoming more blurred every year. And any argument that a company represents thousands or tens of thousands of workers is, ridiculous. A person's job is not their entire world view. For example, do you really think every service member supports the war in Iraq? Simply working for a company doesn't mean you support the policies of the Board of Directors. The reality is that a corporation's millions are really only put into play to represent the top executives and perhaps the major shareholders. Essentially an Oligarchy. A relatively small group of elites controlling the revenue output of a multi billion dollar corporation. Not exactly what I'd call Democracy in action.

In the late 19th century, Lord Acton gave us one of those truisms that are as unyielding as gravity itself. "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And in America, money is power. In this country, enough money can fix or cover up almost any problem. And enough money can turn pretty much any head. We see it over and over in the news. And we all know that what we see is only the tip of the iceberg. It's only when they are caught that we even know about it and you and I both know that only a fraction are actually being caught.

As the current healthcare reform debate rages, it's surprising to no one that many politicians who are fighting hardest to stop reform are the ones who've gotten huge financial injections from the Health Insurance Industry. I'm not claiming that anyone who got a check from Etna is an insurance company drone, but how can you trust anything they say or do when you know they took a huge donation? Maybe they are completely ethical and just standing up for their core beliefs, but the seeds of distrust have been sown and their motivations will now always be in question.

Today, top executives in the major financial corporations make seven figure salaries with bonuses that sometimes exceed their entire yearly income! These are the people who made and approved the decisions that led to the most recent, global financial crisis. These, supposedly, intelligent financial minds managed to do something criminally stupid and cost the world economies dearly. But did it hurt them? A few, maybe. But the vast majority can go on about their days, just as they did a year ago. All the risks they take are with someone else's money. If they do well, they get bonuses that dwarf the LIFE EARNINGS of the vast majority of Americans. If they screw up, even as massively as they did this time, the worst most will face is that they might not get their bonus this year. They'll just have to get by on their paltry million dollar salary. Where is the motivation to properly weigh risks? Why wouldn't they take huge gambles, when they know they have nothing to lose? Sure, some poor schmucks who agreed to loans they should never have been offered in the first place will lose their home and declare bankruptcy. So? Not someone that lives in his neighborhood! Nobody he knows!

This is not a system that can police itself, much less be trusted as the bedrock of our nation. In fact, I hesitate to trust any of these clowns with my lunch money! Many conservatives would like you to believe that the free market will always self-stabilize. And in a vastly macro view, maybe there is some truth to it. But from that same vantage, families and individuals are just buried in a pile of numbers. There's nothing on the balance sheet to show how lost homes and life savings destroy the lives of those who've worked hard for what they have. These are the kind of people conservatives like to call the 'Real America'. But every little 'correction' of the vaunted, unregulated, free market rings out with the sound of thousands and sometimes millions of broken lives and families. And once again, these same conservatives can step down from the lectern and go home to their secure lives and happy families. Upper middle-class, and in many cases affluent, families with comprehensive health insurance and no mortgage worries. I suspect this might alter one's perspective on life's priorities. Just a little bit.

So what am I saying? Am I calling for the end to Capitalism and a headlong dive into Socialism? (Real Socialism this time, as opposed to the phantom kind that so many uninformed Americans are whining about currently.) Of course not! For better or worse there are too many pluses to just discard it, even if that were possible. But Conservatives in particular and everyone in general need to wake up to the reality of our financial system. Capitalism is like riding a tiger. As long as we stay in the saddle and keep our wits about us, it's a beautiful thing! But if we let our attention wander, even in the slightest that lovely creature will eagerly devour us whole. It's time to stop looking at Wall Street through greenback glasses. I know how exciting it is to gather up the money as it rushes into the system, but sometimes that's an indication that the boat is sinking. The financial system and it's Las Vegas swagger needs to be bounded by checks and balances. We need a tight, intelligent framework of laws and regulations to childproof our nation's financial system. Because, make no mistake, in many ways these companies and individuals cannot be trusted unsupervised anymore than a two year old can be trusted with a match. Just like a child, these supposedly smart adults will become so mesmerized by all the shiny coins that they will completely ignore that the house is on fire.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Learning the Hard Way

I was checking mail in a little used, secondary account, and noticed something in the 'Spam' folder. Since these can sometimes be legitimate emails I took a look. The subject line read: "DEAR FRIEND CAN I TRUST YOU".  I don't know about you, but when a stranger says that to me, I start verifying the location of my wallet and look for available exits! All I could do was roll my eyes. This all but screamed out 'SCAM', but curiosity as to the content of the message convinced me to open it. It was, essentially the same scam that has become famous, or infamous if you like, for many years and referred to as the 'African Bank Transfer Fraud' or 'West African Scam', among other names.

It's really an amusing read. You have the bits of French mixed in, such as the date: "jeudi 22 octobre 2009," to give it that old colonial flavor. There is the slightly broken english, to indicate it's this person's second language. There is the vaguely plausible tragedy that leaves $14 Million unclaimed. The financial bit is of course, wildly implausible, but he states that he is "a banker by profession in BURKINA-FASO, WEST AFRICA and currently holding the post of manager in account and auditing department in our bank." So I guess he's trustworthy, right? He offers a 60/40 split of the money with you, which makes sense. After all, he's making the offer, he should get the larger share. Only fair. And all he's asking is for some fairly simple information. Full name, Age and Sex, Contact Address, Telephone & Fax number and your Country of Origin. See, not even asking for any financial info!

My first thought, after laughing for a bit, was to wonder why this scam was still pinging around the internet? One site I found claimed that losses to this scam approach a Million dollars a day in the US. This family of scams has been around for years. It's hard to imagine anyone who hasn't gotten at least one of these emails at some point. And yet the scam continues. This can only mean that, every once in a while, someone is actually responding. As incredible as that is for me to believe, it's the only explanation I can come up with.

So who are these shrubs that take this seriously? I don't mean to sound cruel, but if you are gullible enough to fall for this kind of ham-handed scam, then you are in serious need of a reality check. I can cut slack for an individual who is mentally challenged in some way, but for the vast majority of people there is no excuse. This isn't about being generally trusting or skeptical. This is about engaging your intellect beyond the idle setting. It doesn't require a PH.D in international finance to recognize how ridiculous this offer is. A banker in a West African country wants to split $14 Million with you? Really? And it makes sense that he picked YOU out of billions of other people around the world? And it doesn't strike you at all odd that he doesn't just keep all $14 Million for himself? If he can keep 60% of it, why not the whole thing?

What it all comes down to, is that sometimes the only way for a person to learn is to get burned. I would like to believe that people wouldn't be taken in by something like this, but obviously some are. So all I can say is, while I hope nobody loses serious amounts of money, if that's what it takes to learn to think first, then that's what has to happen. I certainly don't advocate looking at life and assuming that everyone is out to get you, but you have to keep your wits about you. Especially with the plethora of internet scams loose in the wild. When a stranger, or someone you barely know, offers you something wonderful, it's time to step back and think. As the saying goes, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Subject Matter

What to write, what to write. This is the question that tries men's souls. Or not. OK, it vexes mine. (Hey, how often do you get to use the word 'vex' in day to day conversations?!) I have generally felt that I need to post more weighty sorts of things to this space. Usually longer and often politically charged treatises of a serious nature. The problem with that is that I need some significant issue to write about and it takes a while to put it together in a way that seems well thought out. Though I realize that family members might disagree on the "thought out" point, at least on the political issues.

That brings up the other issue. With the political ones, I risk being disowned by my family for my, apparently, wildly naive and liberal ideas. Never quite understood the 'naive' bit, but everyone has an opinion. And I know that when they say 'liberal', they mean idiotic rather than the Oxford English definition, but again, it's an opinion.  The point being, I probably shouldn't do too many politically themed pieces in a row, so as not to rile people up too much.

But I don't want to just tell you about my day either. I think that would be rather boring, not to mention narcissistic. Not that I'm adverse to a little self aggrandizement, but that probably shouldn't be my main subject matter. And there is the very serious danger of making myself look stupid rather than good. And who wants that? Well, I don't, anyway.

So please bear with me. I'll try not to bore, but at the same time try to avoid political overdose. And as always, please feel free to comment and let me know what you think.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Age & Wisdom

The old saying that with age, comes wisdom is an interesting thing. Like many of these gems, it's both true and an over simplification. You certainly gain wisdom with age. How useful that wisdom is and how much you are actually able to apply it, is certainly up for debate.

I remember that when I was a kid, I looked at my parents and couldn't figure out how they knew so much. They seemed to have the answer to every question. Now I've reached and probably exceeded their age when I was a kid and I've discovered something startling. I don't really know what I'm doing. No, really! It's quite the revelation at 40 some odd years old. I still don't know what I want to do or how to get there if I did. Shouldn't I have gained some level of wisdom by now? I would think I deserve at least a minimal Wisdom bonus just for 'time served'. It's only fair, after all.

This begs the question, how clueless were Mom and Dad when I was a kid? Were they just making it up as they went along? If so, I'm impressed with their skill at hiding the fact as well as their ability to come up with the answers. There are times that I'm quite sure that I have failed to even approach their level of wisdom, at a comparable age. I shudder to think what minimal information any child of mine would get from me! Might be just as well I'm offspring-less.

I'm not saying that I've learned nothing in my 40+ years! With the number of mistakes I've made, I'd have to have picked up something. Just pure law of averages. But the irony is that what I've learned is unlikely to be useful to me in the future, since I learned it after the fact, and anyone I know who might benefit from this info is unlikely to listen. (Kids these days!!) Humans are like that. We don't like to take someone's word for anything. We much prefer to walk into the wall ourselves, then, while holding pressure to our bleeding foreheads, think, 'Wow, that is tough to walk through!'. This is probably one of humanities bigger flaws. Somewhat below killing people for being different and somewhat above failing to signal when changing lanes.

I certainly remember hitting my mid twenties and having the epiphany that Mom and Dad were right about much of what they told me when I was growing up.  All the advice that I ignored suddenly looked so obvious all of a sudden. But did I suddenly hang on their every word, like a modern Oracle of Delphi? Nope. Like most everyone else I continued to walk into walls. So I'm not really sure if I've gained any real Wisdom in life.  I guess all I can do is plug away and continue trying to discern the brick wall before I actually hit them. So far, my record is less than stellar, but on the other hand, I'm still alive!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Religious Wisdom from Jimmy Buffett

After posting my last entry, I was listening to a Jimmy Buffett playlist when I was struck by a verse from the song 'Fruitcakes'. Seemed to bear on what I had just posted. So here's the relevant verse that shows Jimmy's lyrical wisdom:

Religion! Religion! Oh, there's a thin line between Saturday
night and Sunday morning. Here we go now.
Alright, alter boys.

Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Mea Maxima Culpa
Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Mea Maxima Culpa

Where's the church, who took the steeple
Religion is in the hands of some crazy-ass people
Television preachers with bad hair and dimples
The god's honest truth is it's not that simple
It's the Buddhist in you, it's the Pagan in me
It's the Muslim in him, she's Catholic ain't she?
It's the born again look its the WASP and the Jew
Tell me what's goin on, I ain't gotta clue

Monday, October 5, 2009

All in the Details

To start off, let me be clear. When it comes to religion, I will often, jokingly refer to myself as a 'non practicing pagan'. Partly that's to indicate that I'm not a member of any particular religious order. It's also, I will admit, a bit of a slap to organized religion in general. This isn't to say I don't respect individual faith, whatever variation that faith follows. After all, nobody will know for sure what's what till we shuffle off this mortal coil.  Having said all that, can someone please explain to me why there has been, and continues to be so much animosity between the various monotheistic sects?! Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, and the seemingly 150 flavors of Protestant.

Look, I'm coming at this from the outside. I have no Catholic, Muslim, Jewish or Baptist agenda.  But I am amazed at the amount of distrust and friction between all the monotheistic faiths. And I don't get it! Really, I don't. Here's what I see. A whole slew of faiths that all believe in a single God. Correct? So they can all agree there's one God/Supreme Being/Universal Force, right? Sounds like on the most important point, there's full agreement! I mean, it doesn't matter what you call your God. Whether Yahweh or Allah or just God. Like Florence, Italy and Firenze, Italia. Different name, still the same city. So there's obviously no issue there!

The problems seems to start when you get to the Prophet v Son of God level. I'm not going to even pretend I am especially knowledgeable about the pantheons of the various faiths. But as I understand it, one of the big points that seems to set otherwise sane, people's brains on fire is the whole Jesus thing. Was he the Son of God, or simply a prophet? As a purely intellectual exercise in theology, I can see where you might want to debate it and quote this or that relevant passage. But come on, really? This is a huge deal in the grand scheme of faith? Every sect that believes he is the SoG can dig up things to support it and every one that doesn't can dig up just as many references that support the other side. So here's the question that would get me excommunicated, if I was Catholic anyway. Does it really matter, outside of an intellectual exercise? No matter which view you take, you'd have to agree that he's at least on God's board of directors! Does it matter if he's the CEO or only VP in Charge of Human Moral Enlightenment? Either way, isn't he's still your boss! And wouldn't you have to assume that any memos that come from him are at least approved by, if not actually copied & pasted directly from God's original email? Again, seems like it would only really matter to the bored theologian.

Then we get to the real minutia. All the rites, ceremonies and whatnot that are part and parcel with organized religion. We'll leave aside the fact that a lot of these were borrowed from historical pagan ceremonies in the interest of attracting more followers. I just find it hard to believe that God is going to give you the one way ticket to Hell, because you ate the wrong thing on the wrong day of the week. Or prayed in the direction of Melbourne instead of Mecca. Seems to me, the born again pagan, that if God loves His people, then I doubt he's going to strike them down for enjoying bacon on their cheeseburger or not wearing their church approved undergarments. I understand tradition, but when tradition becomes sacred it usually starts weaving wildly towards the edges of reason. Next thing you know we're burning people at the stake because they don't perform their sermons in Latin or don't trim their beards in the approved manner. To me, this seems like having capital punishment for parking in a loading zone.

I realize that there is more to some disputes and animosity than this. As the very accurate saying goes, 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. And is there any greater power than that over your follower's souls? There have certainly been, and continue to be individuals who use faith as a cloak for the most base of human motives. We've seen that lately in people like Osama Bin Laden, who wave a Muslim flag yet is more interested in anarchy and power than anything theological. And humanity's bloody history provides many excuses for people to shroud vengeance in the righteousness of faith. But there is still a lot of disdain and arrogance well outside these examples. Like those who talk of America as a Christian nation and can barely tolerate any other religion. America is not a Christian nation. It is a Secular nation. And that, in my opinion, is one of the reasons it is a great country and has remained stable for over 230 years. Faith in the personal sphere has much to offer. Faith in the political sphere is a recipe for disaster.

In my personal, and predominantly secular, opinion, I think it's best to follow the old saying about keeping it simple. And in Faith, the 'simple' part is a belief in one Supreme Being. Period. That is the point where all monotheistic faiths meet and agree. It's the point where every Jew can agree with every Muslim and every Mormon can agree with every Catholic. And isn't this single point, the most important one? Is it just human nature to ignore commonalities and focus on differences? Look at the Catholic v Protestant split, almost five centuries ago. Both Catholic and Protestant sprang from the same history, the same stories and the same basic faith. But somewhere along the way a few disagreements on ceremony and flair erupted and soon thousands were dying at the hands of people who they had more in common with than not. Maybe I just don't 'get it'. Maybe there is some plane of enlightenment that I have yet to attain. If so, please educate me. Because all I see are people bludgeoning each other to death over turns of phrase and interpretations of interpretations of secondhand translations.