Posts Tagged ‘fear’

Through the kindling glass: Uncle Ben in ’08

November 22, 2015

History is fascinating when you get into it.

Today I’m remembering the fall of 2008–that perilous time when the financial crash was pummeling down all around us. The reason I’m remembering this is: I’m reading on kindle Ben Bernanke’s book Courage to Act:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Courage-Act-Memoir-Aftermath-ebook/dp/B00TIZFP0I

So I’m remembering.

My day job during that time was working with students at a local elementary school. The workday began every morning at 8 a.m. I have vivid memories of sitting in my old Subaru wagon in the school parking lot each morning, catching the latest financial news before going inside to punch in. I’d be sitting in the car during the last ten minutes of the 7 o’clock hour while listening to Marketplace Morning on NPR.

Not that I had any real money or assets to work with, mind you, just a little nest-egg house that wife and I had just about paid for, and a little spare change we had after the three young’uns had finished college, etc. just like most folks our age.

But here’s why the memory of those news reports clings to my unfettered mind so tenaciously. Those fateful September days of seven years ago released megalithic destructive financial forces of mayhem and immense complexity that changed forever the economic world as we kno(e)w it.  Perilous WallStreet cluster-fuds suddenly opened a flood of financial and fiscal confusion unprecedented in the history of the world. The only thing that compares to it would be the crash of ’29, but of course that was then and this was now.

In Uncle Ben’s book, Courage to Act, through which he strives to shine a light of transparency into the workings of the Fed and its relationship to the financial powers that be, he explains, in chapter 12, the demise of one particular entity (the AIG insurance conglomerate) that fell during that month’s frantic rearrangement of dominoes. He describes the problem this way:

 “AIG FP’s risk was compounded by the difficulty in valuing its highly complex position, in part because the securities that the company was insuring were so complex and hard to value.”

This universal fragility about value (or sudden loss of value) of toxic assets would be something akin to a global computer-virus, but in the financial world. Nobody knew how, when, or where, the infection of overnight falling  asinine asset prices could obliterate the richness of previously fat portfolios. It was like Ebola on WallStreet.

During that third week of September of 2008, the bankruptcy of investment bank Lehman Bros, and then the unraveling of worldwide cluster-fudded AIG, damn near brought the whole house of WallStreet et al etc cards of down.

I guess US Treasurer Hank Paulson and a few other arm-twisting high-flyers later put the fear of dog into Congress and into whomever else was in charge of this country at the time, so that the gov-softened crash landing of worldwide money tranches wasn’t nearly as bad as when something like that happened in ’29 and the whole dam American economy fell apart.

As I told you before, I was just a detached observer at the time, September 15 2008, a regular guy with no skin in the game trying to figure out what the hell was going as I heard about events on the car radio.

Now reading Uncle Ben’s memoir, I see a little more clearly what was going on behind the scenes. I guess his transparency mission is being realized; at least it is on me.

I see the light. I think I understand. Fear, as Joni Mitchell once sang, is like a wilderland.

Fear is a big part of this whole things fall apart deal that we see in life sometimes.

In the case of the investment banks and Wall Street and all that derivative-induced shenanigans that came unwounded in fall of ’08, it was fear of losing value on a massive scale, fear of diminishing assets on a global scale, and hence fear of metastasizing money-loss on a megadential scale.

But hey, there are worse fears in life. . .fear of dying?

Speaking of death, we could say that old folks are generally closer to it than young ones. But the fear of death can be, I feel, softened somewhat by the sense that one has lived a fulfilling life, or maybe an adventurous life, or perhaps a prosperous life, whatever attribute of the good life floats your boat.

Here’s something Uncle Ben wrote in his memoir about the old-timers on Wall Street during that fateful fall of ’08:

“For Wall Street old-timers, the events of the (Lehman weekend) weekend would evoke some nostalgia. Two iconic Wall Street firms that had survived world wars and depressions, Lehman (Bros.) and Merrill (Lynch), had disappeared in a weekend. I felt no nostalgia at all. I knew that the risks the two firms had taken had endangered not only the companies but the global economy with unknowable consequences.”

Unknowable consequences. That’s what you get when a bunch of old (or young) wise guys play fast and loose with a world-class pile of other people’s money.

But hey, that was then and this is now; it could never happen again.

At least not the same way.

 

Glass Chimera

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From Munich to Hormuz

September 12, 2015

In his 1972 journalistic opus, The Best and the Brightest,

http://www.amazon.com/Best-Brightest-Kennedy-Johnson-Administrations/dp/0330238477/

David Halberstam quotes President Lyndon Johnson, who made a speech on July 28, 1965, which included these words:

 

“We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.

“Nor would surrender in Vietnam bring peace, because we learned from Hitler at Munich that success only feeds the appetite of aggression. The battle  would be renewed in one country and then another country, (and) bring with it perhaps even larger and crueler conflict, as we have learned from the lessons of history.”

 

What history actually brought, in the years that followed, was this lesson:  the “larger and crueler conflict” of which LBJ spoke happened anyway, in spite of our confident, prolonged military efforts to arrest communist aggression in southeast Asia beginning in 1965.

The best laid plans of mice and men never work out as they were planned. This is the tragedy of human government, and even perhaps, of human history itself.

On that press conference occasion in 1965, President Johnson was announcing an escalation of the war in Vietnam, with new troop deployments increasing from 75,000 to 125,000. The total number of American soldiers eventually  sent to fight in Vietnam, before the conflagration ended in 1975, would far surpass that 125,000 that he was announcing on that fateful day.

If you go back and study what wars and negotiative agreements were forged between the leaders of nations in the 20th-century, you will see that our species has a long record of hopeful expectations for peace and safety that failed to manifest in the triumphant ways that we had expected.

After World War I, the victorious Allies, congregating in Versailles, France, went to great lengths to construct a peace deal that would last. . . that would last, as they hoped, in a way that would render their armisticed Great War to be the War to End all Wars.

A few years later, a foxy German dictator named Hitler worked himself into a position of systematically and stealthily destroying that Treaty of Versailles.

When British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler in 1938, and worked out a peace agreement which would allow Hitler to obscond Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain returned to London with the now infamous assessment, Peace in our time!

Look what happened after that.

That failed Munich agreement is the one to which President Johnson referred in his 1965 escalation speech. As quoted above, he mentioned what “we learned from Hitler at Munich.”

What historical lesson did we learn from history as a result of Chamberlain’s naivete at Munich?

Maybe this: You cannot always, if ever, trust your enemy. Especially if the arc of history is rising in his (the enemy’s) direction. Which it was (rising), like it or not, for Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich in 1938.

Years later, after Hitler and his Nazi terrorizers had scared the hell out of most everybody in the civilized world, the postwar scenario unearthed in WWII’s ashes  revealed this: a new ideological death-struggle between the Capitalist West and and the spectre of advancing Communism.

During that postwar period–1940s through the 1970s or ’80s–the rising fear that dominated both sides (Capitalist vs Communist) became an obsession for many national leaders. On both sides,  brave men and women were called, and took upon themselves, the perilous burden of defending themselves and their own against the horrible deprivations of the other side.

I grew up during that time. And I can tell you this: At that time, the fears about “Communism” were very real and threatening to many, if not most, Americans. And I daresay that massive fear of “the enemy” was dominant on the Soviet side as it was for us.

Then History threw us a real curve in the late 1940s when Mao and the Chinese communists ran (our man) Chiang Kai-shek out of the mainland (to Taiwan) and established their Asian version of what the Soviets were attempting to establish in eastern Europe.

This Chinese Communist threat is what our national leaders greatly feared in the 1950s and ’60s, when we began to fear the spread of Maoist communism into what remained of (largely third-world) southeast Asia.

Long story short, this fear and loathing of creeping Chinese communism is what got us into, and eventually sucked us into, the war in Vietnam.

Now we all know how that turned out.

What is happening in the world today is not unlike what was happening then. It’s all slouching toward unpredictable, though predictably tragic, human history.

For us in the West now, the great fear is what life would be like under the domination of Islamic Jihad, which is to say, ISIS, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, or Al-qaida, or whatever stronghold ultimately controls that emerging world military threat. (I’m not talking about the “good Muslims”, whoever they may be.)

Hence, many folks today, me included, do not trust any arrangement that our President and/or Secretary of State could set up with Iran. We do remember, as LBJ alluded to, “Munich.”

But we also remember Vietnam, which began–as President’s Johnson escalation speech reference attests– as a military effort to prevent another “Munich” outcome.

In our present time, ever present in our mind is Iraq; we see what is happening there now, after we went to all that blood, sweat and tears to secure that nation against Sadamic Sunni abuse and/or Khomeini Shiite totalitarianism.

As Churchill did not trust Hitler, while Chamberlain did trust him: our principle ally Netanyahu does not trust Khameini and the Iranians, while Obama does trust them.

Back in the 1930s-’40s, which assessment was correct? Churchill’s.

In our present situation, which assessment of Iranian motives is correct, Netanyahu’s or Obama’s?

To try and  figure out–as historical precedent and historical possibility bears down upon us– how our contemporary peace efforts will play out in the chambers and killing fields of power, is like. . .well. . . The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

And we are now, as we were then, on the eve of certain destruction.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntLsElbW9Xo

Did we survive the last time? Did the free world survive?

You tell me.

 

Smoke

The Slithering Slitter

September 21, 2014

Fierce, I tell you, be the sacrilege of this evil,

and immense in its fear upheaval.

His murderous blade slits shock across our necked world,

under flitting black flag of blood unfurled,

on video violence broadcasting;

it proclaimeth fear everlasting.

Yea I say unto thee this be

raw sorcery if

ever there was one, you see.

So fair and foul a day we have not seen,

and it aint just no bad dream:

this hurly-burly that’s been done–

it slitteth slicker than a gun.

But as that masked weirdo he judgment proclaim

upon our foul and decadent game,

he discerneth not the stink of his own slit,

he smelleth not his own foul shit!

You know,

amongst the high, beneath the low,

we all be sinners on this bus,

while innocent children wail amidst the fuss;

This bus trundles along our streets of rage,

while he slithers through the terror of our age.

but Jesus savin’ Christ! stop the bus!

Is there no way out for us?

Glass half-Full

Dover Breach

August 23, 2014

The air is mad tonight

electric with fright

but drugged with fluff and flight:

hear no evil, see no blight.

America in cyber slumber swoons

while England grooms jihad goons

like 1937 fascist blackshirts

deflowering 2014 democratic skirts.

France ( peace be upon her)

seethes with same old same old stir–

that angst witch discontent doth incur

from yonder barricaded former age

now slit with new jihadi rage.

 

The air of Faith

so thin of late

as most prefer to flirt with fate

now cringes in this new birth of hate;

its melancholy, long withdrawing gasp

retreating fast, like slithering asp

unable now to grasp

with slipping grips unfurled

the naked idols the world.

 

Ah, good Christian, let us be true

to one another! for the world, which casts its spell

of rebel chaos and decadent hell,

has no power when all’s said and done

to set our ancient faith upon the run,

though the infernal note of madness floods every byte

while polar extremists clash by night.

 

(This poem’s form was adapted from Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach.)

Smoke

The Economist Illumination

April 13, 2014

I never really understood much about international finance and economics until this morning, when I read a special, long article in this week’s The Economist. In the printed edition, the text begins on page 49; it is entitled The slumps that shaped modern finance.

I’ve been subscribing to, and reading, that “newspaper” (as their editors call it, while we Americans think of it as a magazine) for several years. But I have always labored to figure out what the hell they are writing about. In surveying many past issues, I have contented myself merely to check out the obituary, which is always on the last page. Then I would thumb through in a backwards, right to left, fashion to glean a little from what’s going on in the literary and arts world.

Perhaps my years of reading The Economist with so little comprehension have prepared me, unbeknownst to my cognitive mind, for the light-bulb moment I had this morning while reading their concise, 6-page history of financial crises. Be that as it may, the light of understanding finally shone in my head when I read, on pages 51-52, their explanation of the Panic of 1857.

“I think I understand . . .” Joni Mitchell had sung long ago, “fear is like a wilder land.”

Long story short, when investors think they are going to lose a lot of money they are overtaken with Fear, so they go hog-wild. Maybe that means the bulls retreat while the bears gather, but the hogs go crazy destroying the place.

Or, as the ’60s radicals use to call them, the “pigs.”

But I wouldn’t call anybody a pig. Maybe . . . a walrus.

Anyway, here is what’s interesting about the Panic of 1857: America was at that time an “emerging nation” that had expanded its explorative and technological frontiers beyond its ability to keep all the accounts straight and well-balanced. Consequently, the Brit financiers panicked, and all the money people around the world followed suit, including us.

Today, the shoe is on the other foot. We Americans are like the well-established powerhouse that the Brits were in the 19th century, while today’s “emerging” powers, the so-called BRICs and a few others, are in a position similar position to where we were in 1857, or 1907, or 1937.

Maybe the other shoe is about to drop, maybe not.

If you want to know something about how this plays out historically, I recommend you check it out. If you want to read it online, here it is: http://www.economist.com/

Smoke 

The Ghost

October 29, 2011

That Occupying spirit face, it hauntifies my mind–
a smirky mask with painted smile upon its face of ghastly white.
Oh! what a ghostly site.
With black-lined clownish bizarrity
it mocks authority,
and conjures up signs of somethin happnin here;
what it is aint exactly clear.
Now fhe windmills of my mind  crank out shadowy spectres from long ago:
the port huron statement and
four dead in ohio.
I see the ghost of  My Lai massacre;
it stalks my g-generation like a smear–
blood on our hands from the tip of an agent-orange-spiked spear.
Out damned spot!
Have you come to splotch us again?
Out, I say, with the dire trespass of dow jones culpability
and exploding napalm fire like some howling banshee.
As puff the magic dragon who used to frolic in autimn mists
so our innocence has spiraled up in smoky days,
with unwelcome images from a Gulf of Tonkin haze.
Deja vu
I feel this wallstreet visitation is a spectre of impending trouble:
calling into question all the blood guilt ever known by man, double
and all the carnage ever splattered on to span
upon a waste and wanton land;
Who’s responsible for this?
And my mind misgives some consequence yet hanging in the stars
shall bitterly begin
with these Occupying rebels
whose consensual zeal would snuff out the wallstreet conniption fit
of capitalism’s big collateralized debt obligation zit,
as if the heart of depraved man could be improved upon a bit.
Oh shit!
This protest, in its collective sensibility,
is presumed more pristine
than corporate culpability,
with its globalized guile and leveraged guilt.
Does their urgent cry for egalité
cloak some fateful guillotine strategé?
A reign of terror from the tyrrany of the ninety-nine
to thrash out the fattened one-percent piggy kine?
Will this produce a future gulag or a forced labor camp,
a cultural revolution led by a raging tramp?
Who’s responsible for this?
this fermenting mobbish contagion
transgression upon our convulsing nation.
It renders ashen white our neo-wallstreet mask
and calls us to blot out the bloody task
of human business.
Out! damned spot, we cry unto the whispering wind.
lay on us no more collateral damage to offend.
And ask not for whom that damned bell  tolls;
now it peels again and again unto our restless souls.

Our ancestral refugees left ghoulish tales from long ago and far away
of the dachau and  the auschwitz and the hitlerian birkenau.
And we hear ghastly tales from the so-called other side
of how they perished in stalin’s gulag, and in the mao’s “cultural revolution” millions died.
By their calculated rearrangements of the classified human chain,
they bound our bloody attempts to declassify into some ghoulish arbitrary game,
where the shedding of guilty blood, for the intent to make everything right
became an instant reply of human cruelty, sprinkled with bloody fright.

Now we the piggy capitalists, have we crossed that same damned line?
Have our reckless swapping one-percent cast unbearable load upon the ninety-nine?
Do you Occupyers now propose to judge their fatcat games
with social restructurings to expunge their selfish shames?
Good luck with that;
it’ll be a cold day in hell
when we know for whom that bell
tolls.
Our capitalist souls?

Glass Chimera

1938

April 24, 2010

‘Tis a ruthless world we live in.
Not so long ago Hitler and Stalin
cast their murderous hurly-burly upon the unsuspecting world.
Where are the malware-brewing bearers of their foul legacy
now? What new Mao
or Pol Pot
lurks to ride roughshod upon the grace of our good intentions?

Did we drive them into the depths, never to wield their bloody piles
again?
What denizens of destructive ire
wait now upon the shadows of some universal discontent?
What advocates of mayhem
weave their tangled web among the limbs of our atrocity?
I will wait
and hear what beast
doth lie beneath this deathly calm–
what scurrilous law of state
doth wait to nail our liberty of lies
upon a cross of hate.
I will wait
to slay him–this beast of old.
Or
Maybe it won’t happen again.
Oh, God help us