The Collapse, Part One

Paleo Retiree writes:

This is Part One of a three-part series.

Since my recent retirement, the main way I’ve been busying myself intellectually has been in trying to make sense of the financial collapse of 2008. “What on earth just happened?” is/was my basic response to the events of that year. My only excuse for being as uninformed as I was about the situation: While epic shenanigans and dramas were unfolding in the political and financial worlds, I was paying attention to other things: movies, books, computers, food, personal life …

Realizing that I had a lot of catching-up to do, I’ve read books, I’ve watched documentaries, I’ve haunted blogs … Not being in possession of a math-type brain (to put it mildly) and having less than zero experience in the financial world — I can barely, and only for mere seconds at a time, wrap my mind around what a credit-default swap is — I want to make it clear right up front that I have nothing of worth to add to the information-and-analysis part of the discussion. (Hey, I generally like to be a modest person, but one virtue I’m happy to claim for myself: When I don’t have personal experience with a field I make an effort to restrain myself from carrying on about it like an expert.)

The main benefit of my haphazard research: I now feel familiar with the discussion — with the basic information; with the points people talking about the collapse generally make; with the positions that are argued for and against (and argued from); with the responses and solutions that are proposed; etc. I can watch the news and pay attention to the debate and actually follow along in a familiar-with-the-material kinda way. And even if I’m too smart about my dumbness to enter into the debate, I can’t resist treating myself to an opportunity to pass along some observations about it.

OK, then.

First, a distinction I’ve found useful: between mainstream people and the fringier crowd. Between, in other words, people who take seriously the case offered up by the politicians, the mainstream press, the mainstream economists, and the Fed and people who don’t. To repeat myself: On the one hand: People who take (or pretend to take) the official narrative at face value. On the other: People who are skeptical of the official narrative. (Do Bernanke and Obama buy their own class’ p-r? I wish I knew.)

Here, I’m so temperamentally incapable of respecting the establishment’s account — essentially, “Not to worry. Mistakes were made (blizzard of details here) but we’ve got things under control now” — that I have nothing to add. After all, either you’re someone who’s part of The Matrix (also called “The Cathedral” by some reactionary sites I enjoy visiting) or you’re someone who has made an escape from it — or who, perhaps, never bought into it in the first place.

My second observation came as a surprise to me: While the Dems and the Repubs enact the requisite conventional-narrative fistfight, real lefties and real righties turn out to share much in common. One of the most striking things that has hit me during my explorations is the way that the analyses and descriptions of What Just Happened offered up by the real left and the real right overlap almost completely. The interpretations and solutions they propose may differ dramatically … but what they’re seeing and describing is often the exact same thing.

Here’s one small example from among the many that I’ve run across. Ann Pettifor, a British FDR-loving social democrat of the Dalai-Lama/Bono sort, explains here that the current mess dates from the early ’70s. Nathan Lewis, a gold bug who writes for Forbes, thinks so too. The differences set in only at the level of explanation: Pettifor thinks it’s because the early ’70s is when capital controls were lifted. Lewis thinks it’s because the early ’70s is when Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard. To me, what’s more striking is the way they agree — something happened in the early ’70s — than the ways they disagree.

(So shoot me: I like both Pettifor and Lewis. They’ve both got valuable contributions to make, and they both make ’em in ways I enjoy. A general life-lesson I can’t resist venturing: In politics and economics, no one possesses the one final answer; many people have things of value to add; and those things of value can come from all over the political compass.)

FWIW: My favorite source for leftie info and interpretation about the financial world has long been Doug Henwood, whose reporting on Wall Street I’ve followed since the ’80s. I love Doug’s book “Wall Street”; you can download a free copy of it here. Highly recommended: It’s clear, feisty without being tendentious, eye-opening, and full of startling info. One typical passage:

Take, for example, the stock market … What does it do? Both civilians and professional apologists would probably answer by saying that it raises capital for investment. In fact it doesn’t. Between 1981 and early 1996, U.S. nonfinancial corporations retired over $700 billion more in stock than they issued …

Smart, informative stuff, and delivered in a way even I can follow. I can’t imagine a better presentation of what Wall Street is, what it does, and how it works.

My favorite rightie source is the above-mentioned Nathan Lewis. I loved Lewis’ book “Gold: The Once and Future Money.” As absurd as the goldbug position can often seem, I found Lewis’ book amazingly informative and provocative. I’ve been surprised, in fact, to discover that gold can be an interesting vantage point from which to look out upon the financial, political and economic worlds. Fun to notice too that, at his rich and quirky website, Lewis reveals himself to be a major (and inspired) fan of traditional urbanism.

To be continued tomorrow …

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Personal reflections, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The Collapse, Part One

  1. Epiminondas says:

    Hey, better late than never. You now know what you don’t know. That’s always encouraging. When I let loose with a few choice opinions about fractional reserve banking and artificially manipulated interest rates among my liberal/leftie arts friends, they look at me agape as if I had just announced I was about to have a sex change operation. And that look is priceless.

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  2. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    “The interpretations and solutions they propose may differ dramatically … but what they’re seeing and describing is often the exact same thing.”

    I’ve been noticing this a great deal as well. Last summer I met up for a weekend with an old friend who I’d describe as center-left and we gabbed at length about politics without really disagreeing at all: a corrupt elite has captured for their own ends a system that’s supposed to benefit all of us.

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  3. Toddy Cat says:

    “In politics and economics, no one possesses the one final answer; many people have things of value to add; and those things of value can come from all over the political compass.”

    A very valuable insight, and one that a lot of people on both left and right could stand to learn. No matter what the answer is, I think that we can all agree the official narrative is BS, no matter where we are on the political spectrum

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    • If even more of us could agree that the official narrative is BS it’d be great by me. But, these days, would it make any difference? It’s a funny time, what with more and more people seeing thru the p.r. Yet on the show goes.

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  4. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    Anyone else try reading Michael Lewis’s The Big Short? I’ve heard it’s a great piece of journalism but all that stuff about financial instruments goes right over my head.

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  5. Brent Buckner says:

    Watch out for the pea under the thimble.

    “Both civilians and professional apologists would probably answer by saying that it raises capital for investment. In fact it doesn’t. Between 1981 and early 1996, U.S. nonfinancial corporations retired over $700 billion more in stock than they issued …”

    The facts as given don’t contradict raising capital for investment.

    To illustrate: consider if the entire market consisted of one nonfinancial corporation which came onto the market in 1981 in an IPO raising $1.4 trillion dollars (for corporate investment), its share price doubled by early 1996, and in early 1996 it retired $2.1 trillion dollars of shares.

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  6. chucho says:

    The fringe left and right both agree that the building’s on fire. The mainstream says the fire’s manageable and the building’s going to be ok. The left wants to put the fire out, but store another 100 million gallons of kerosene in the basement. The right wants to knock the building down and build a new one that’s fireproof.

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  7. Maule Driver says:

    If you would ever consider listening rather than reading about the collapse, this is more than worth listening to…
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/355/the-giant-pool-of-money

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  8. Pingback: The Collapse, Part Two | Uncouth Reflections

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  11. Bill says:

    One of the most striking things that has hit me during my explorations is the way that the analyses and descriptions of What Just Happened offered up by the real left and the real right overlap almost completely. The interpretations and solutions they propose may differ dramatically … but what they’re seeing and describing is often the exact same thing.

    This is a general phenomenon. I am on the far right. If I have to choose between reading some mainstream lefty rag like the NYT, Time, Newsweek, etc and reading Mother Jones, I read Mother Jones. They care about getting the facts right. Facts are not threatening to them since every fact, no matter what it is, leads to the conclusion “therefore Comrade Lenin was right.” I exaggerate—I would not trust them on Cuba, for example. But on the vast swathe of contemporary, domestic American issues, they are good on the facts.

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