Economy General Topics National Issues

Who’s To Blame?

I received an email a while back from my stepfather with an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune. The basic thrust of the piece was that the President, and public at large, were pointing the finger of blame for the financial meltdown in the wrong direction. Instead of pointing them at the banks and large financial firms, we should be directing the blame toward all those selfish, unaccountable individuals who bought homes with adjustable rate mortgages. Those stupid, self-interested bastards!

Just like it was the unions and workers who should be blamed for the ruin of General Motors and the other American car companies, not the companies themselves selling gas-guzzling cars no one wanted.

The opinion piece has a whining tone, it seems to me. Oh, those poor banks and financial giants are always being picked on.

We live in a society that is built on and driven by consumption. It is the capitalist way. It is the American way. Television shows and commercials suggest to us how much better our lives would be if only we had a big house, fancy clothing, big cars, and lots of amenities like big flat screen televisions, surround sound stereo systems, and the like.

Credit card ads and deals are everywhere. “Save 20% if you sign up today. No interest or payments for 48 months.” Everywhere we turn, there are temptations with just how easy it would be. But you don’t see with the same pervasiveness information about how to responsibly manage your debt or your finances. Credit card companies turn up on college campuses, whose vast majority of students have no or minimal income, and tempt students with free stuff if they just sign up.

If someone grew up having not learned about the dangers of crossing a busy street, then walked out and got hit, would we blame them for being senseless? I doubt it. But somehow the author of the opinion piece and countless others seem to think all Americans should be endowed at birth with the understanding of interest rates and pages of legalese in a mortgage contract. They should understand instinctively the dangerous pitfalls of spending on credit money they’ll never have.

Why is it we should blame these people, instead of the heads of Wall Street, of banks, of Bear Stearns, of Goldman-Sachs, of AIG? These people are supposed to be experts. They’re supposed to have an intimate understanding of the financial system, yet how is it they can shrug their shoulders: “There’s no way we could have seen this coming.”

And it’s funny how no one was talking about individual financial responsibility when those same heads of the financial markets, their firms and employees were making insane amounts of money in real estate, in subprime mortgage-backed securities sales, in credit default swaps. Only after the collapse, only after those companies which were ‘too big to fail’ started doing exactly that, did Wall Street and conservatives started pointing fingers at those same people on whom they had gotten filthy rich for years.

So how is it the individual homeowner is to blame, while those companies that made BILLIONS OF DOLLARS aren’t at the same time culpable? How is it these savvy financial leaders couldn’t see the cliff approaching, but the guy on Main Street should have known better about what they were getting into?

Matt Taibbi, a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine, has done an excellent job of shining a light on what’s really happened. In a March 19, 2009 article, he writes:

When Geithner announced the $30 billion bailout, the party line was  that poor AIG was just a victim of a lot of shitty luck — bad year for business, you know what with the financial crisis and all. Edward Liddy, the company’s CEO, actually compared it to catching a cold: “The marketplace is a pretty crummy place to be in right now,” he said. ” When the world catches pneumonia, we get it too.” In a pathetic attempt at name-dropping, he even whined that AIG was being “consumed by the same issues that are diving house prices down and 401K statements down and Warren Buffet’s investment portfolio.”

Liddy made AIG sound like an orphan begging in a soup line, hungry and sick from being left out in someone else’s financial weather. He conveniently forgot to mention that AIG had spent more than a decade systematically scheming to evade U.S. and international regulators, or that one of the causes of its “pneumonia” was making colossal, world-sinking $500 billion bets with money it didn’t have, in a toxic and completely unregulated derivatives market.

Nor did anyone mention that when AIG finally got up from its seat at the Wall Street casino, broke and busted in the afterdawn light, it owed money all over town — and that huge chunk of your taxpayer dollars in this particular bailout scam will be going to pay off the other high rollers at its table. Or that this was a casino unique among all casinos, one where middle-class taxpayers cover the bets of billionaires.

I have no doubt that there were a small percentage of savvy people who were trying to beat the clock and make a quick buck, like so many others, turning over bigger and bigger houses for profit. I also have little doubt there were also those who felt a knot in their stomach before they signed their mortgage papers for a house they really shouldn’t be buying, but signed anyway. But the vast majority of those millions of people who are now broke, busted, with foreclosure papers in hand that were simply duped. They didn’t understand what they were getting into and were foolish enough to trust those mortgage brokers who told them it would be alright.

A special report in The Economist on financial risk is a brief, but clear assessment on what when wrong. The report seems to place no blame on irresponsible individuals, but instead on a government too eager to get people into homes of their own, on ‘self-serving’  financial and banking industries, ‘cheap money:’

It would, though, be simplistic to blame the crisis solely, or even mainly, on sloppy risk manager or wild-eyed quants. Cheap money led to the wholesale underpricing of risk; America ran negative real estate interest rates in 2002-2005, even though consumer-price inflation was quiescent. Plenty of economists disagree with the recent assertion by Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, that the crisis had more to do with lax regulation of mortgage products and loose monetary policy.

Equally damaging were policies to promote home ownership in America using Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the country’s two mortgage giants. They led the duo to binge on securities backed by shoddily underwritten loans.

In the absence of strict limits, higher leverage followed naturally from low interest rates. The debt of America’s financial firms ballooned relative to the overall economy. At the peak of the madness, the median large bank had borrowings of 37 times its equity, meaning it could be wiped out by a loss of just 2-3% of its assets.

Here in Hawaii, a number of residents complain that government workers and union members haven’t shouldered ‘their fair share’ of the economic crisis and $1.2 billion budget shortfall. People feel better about their bad situation if they feel it’s shared by everyone else. Well, while unemployment nationwide continues to rise, while wages and retirement portfolios stagnate or shrink, those banks and financial firms who are reporting huge profits are talking about giving huge bonuses to their employees. While homeowners continue to lose their homes, the rich continue to get richer.

When I write on these types of topics, I do my best to do so dispassionately on the facts of the issue, but I can’t help but be pissed off about this. Main Street should feel bad about its key role in the financial meltdown while the rich manage to get richer with a loan from those same Main Street people? I’m sorry, but I don’t blame Main Street excesses when the richest 1% of this country owns 90%, or more, of the wealth.

Lastly, while it may be a bit off topic, I can’t help but wonder about those people and politicians who have for several months decried a single-payer health care system, or a ‘public option’ as a government takeover of the health care system or a move toward socialism. Aren’t these the same people that put up virtually no fight at all when Bush and Obama bailed out Wall Street? How is a government bailout not a move in the realm of socialism?

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