Friday, January 22, 2010

Greed hurts all but the greedy

By Don Klein

Imagine yourself a school bus driver with a second job as a newspaper route delivery driver. Your wife works as a kitchen helper at a local hospital. You have three kids and you want the best for them. You see a $650,000 house you would like to move into but cannot afford.

Surprise, the sales agent puts you in touch with a banker who says he will lend you the money and you only have to pay the interest for a number of years while you improve your earnings to eventually handle the principal. You ignore the obvious pitfalls because you are either brainless or terribly hungry for a better life style.

In your foolishness you fall for such a gambit, but the real estate seller and the banker know what the score is. They are shrewd. They are downright crooks who know how to make money even though they are convinced you’re destined to default. They have a plan.

The salesman gets his commission for selling the house, the banker meanwhile takes your feeble mortgage and packages it on Wall Street with thousands others just likes yours. They then sell a whole package of loans at an appealing price to investors – many of which represent pension funds and important charities. That becomes the recipe for a financial crisis.

The real estate sales person and the banker know there is trouble ahead, but they will make their profits passing off the package and sticking it to investors. When the day of reckoning comes and a bubble payment is due, you, the homeowner, will rely on your our little plan. You will sell the house you never could afford but lived in for years and make a solid profit considering the normal ascent in home prices.

Alas, the day comes and the real estate market collapses. You can’t sell your house and the mortgage is in default. At the same time neither can the thousands of others whose mortgages were sold when you took out the loan. The result: An international financial crisis unlike anything seen since the Great Depression. The guilty: The home buyers and sellers, and worst of all the bankers who put up the money for the loans that should never have been made.

You did it because you wanted a better life style for your family and yourself.
The seller was willing to complete the sale because the banker was willing to put up the money and Wall Street was taking the financial risk. The toxic package was passed off to the oblivious investor. None of this would have happened if anyone along the way had a modicum of integrity.

In the end it was the banker who made it all possible. It was the banker who tried to outsmart all others for his gain, and his enhanced year-end bonus. The more mortgages he sold, the more the payoff and to hell with the home owner who defaulted and the pension funds now holding worthless stock.

The banker is the culprit in the financial crisis smothering the global economy for nearly a year and a half. This scenario demonstrates the power of greed. Greed is as normal to a banker as counter clockwise motion is to flushed toilet water. It’s incontrovertible. It cannot be altered.

The 1987 film "Wall Street" spelled it out clearly when the fictional Gordon Gekko expressed the well recalled stock manipulator’s philosophy, "Greed is good."

Greed has become the epithet for Wall Street bankers. It is their synonym like Homosapien is the synonym for the species of man. After the recent testimony of four top bankers before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in Washington we can now add "ingrate" to define Wall Street money changers. It’s no wonder their predecessors were chased from ancient temples.

At one point in the testimony the head of Goldman Sachs had the nerve to liken the hellish recession to a Hurricane and other manifestations of rampaging Nature. Phil Angelides, the commission’s chairman, couldn’t let that go unanswered. "Acts of God we’ll exempt. These were acts of men and women."

The commission is investigating to determine if the Wall Street insiders intentionally put the bad assets together and passed them off as healthy investments even when they knew better. All the bankers managed to say was they "regret" people lost money in these transactions. No apologies offered.

The banks under scrutiny at the hearing besides Goldman Sachs were Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley. They all received bailout money from TARP and have already repaid some of the loans. But worst of all is their bonus programs. Billions are disbursed to employees of the banks who benefitted from federal funding assistance to make their year a profitable one.

The bankers never admitted that they had any responsibility for the garbage assets they peddled on the market. They were just interested in moving the rotten goods out of their store and making a profit like an avaricious grocer selling baskets of rotten tomatoes. When the banks recovered thanks to taxpayer funds, they moved to "reward’ their top executives with millions of dollars in bonuses.

John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, made one of the most pointed comments at the end of the hearing. "If the leaders of Wall Street did not consider the possibility of housing prices dropping" through their own experience, nor all the red flags raised about mortgage fraud for years and did not realize that high cost, interest-only loans were being made "then their spirited defense of their employees falls flat."

"Based on what we heard today," Taylor concluded, "they should be firing people not giving them bonuses." Amen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Eleventh Commandment

By Don Klein
I never thought much of devout people who lecture others on the qualities of his or her faith. To me, when it comes to religion, what you believe in – or don’t believe in – is no one’s business but your own. It is like someone clumsily presupposing they know the path to goodness and morality while the other person does not.

It also presupposes there is only one pathway to virtue. Such propositions are flawed and ignorant. And unseemly.

Many years ago when I was an executive with the Maryland Port Authority on a trade mission in Japan I experienced a haunting example of misplaced religious ardor. Four of us were in a taxi on the way to the airport near Osaka when the head of the delegation somehow turned the usually light travel talk to religion. The others were Christians, I wasn’t.

"Klein, you’ll never have a satisfying life because you do not accept Jesus as your savior," he said. I thought he was jesting and laughed, but he wasn’t.

I wondered what this arrogant muttonhead considered a satisfying life. His wife was an alcoholic who died earlier than she should of sclerosis of the liver. His only daughter left an exclusive college without graduating after three years of costly tuition. He was forced out of his top job before retirement because of his professional ineffectiveness and ended up a lonely widower with few friends.

If that was what the "good life" his religion brought, no thank you. Actually, it wasn’t his religion that made his life good or bad, it was his tactless demeanor, his poor business judgment and his arrogance that provided the downturn of his career and private life.

Brit Hume’s demeaning remarks about Tiger Woods’s need for religious forgiveness brought that memory back to me. "Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world," he lectured on television the Buddhist Woods for his womanizing antics.

Having religious beliefs are fine and often serve good purposes. But to have the nerve to openly suggest what others should do is loathsome, but not unusual. Take the thousands of missionaries who are scattered around the world proselytizing their faith over the beliefs of natives with bribes of food and medicine.

The endearing quality of life in America is the Constitutional protection of religious belief. The government will never indorse a specific religion and will never restrict its citizens in choosing the religion they prefer. In most cases people follow the religion of their parents and family. But if they wish to convert, it is their free choice.

I would hope no one construes what I am saying as opposition to conversion. If people freely decide to change their faith, so be it. Congratulations and good luck. But for an outsider, layman or clergyman, to gratuitously preach conversion is definitely a no-no in my mind. Hands off, friend, this is the land of free choice.

Now to the subject of Brit Hume’s proposal to Tiger Woods – "forgiveness." That’s a beauty in itself. What does that mean? What sins are forgivable and who decides which? Would we forgive a cold-blooded slayer of children? A traitor to his country? A murderous head of state like Hitler or Stalin?

All right, cool off. Tiger has only admitted to having extra-marital affairs. That’s got nothing to do with religion and all to do with his relationship with his wife. They must resolve the problem. There is no need to change his religion. Did not Brit Hume’s mother ever warn him to stay out of other people’s personal lives?

There should be an Eleventh Commandment – Thou shalt not stick thy nose in other people’s private affairs.

When I was growing up in polyglot New York City we would often hear a bigot claim that many of his best friends are Jewish. We laughed at the obvious hypocrisy. But I can claim the reverse with unembarrassed preciseness. Many of my best friends are Christian. If fact most of my friends are Christian and I have no complaints.

The ordinary people I have met in life, which includes a career in journalism and public relations and my wife’s career in public education and later as an accountant, has been sprinkled richly with great people of all religious denominations. Except for a minimal of aberrations, like the one mentioned above, I found people keep their spiritual preferences to themselves, no doubt because they felt their faith is a personal matter.

It is truly a shame that a few unthinking immoderates like Brit Hume besmirch the good intentions of so many others who respect the honest differences in faiths found in a thoroughly mixed and educated society such as ours. The thought that one religion is superior to another is not what this country is about, and should not be in the minds of fair minded person.

Tiger Woods will find his own way out of his current troubles or – he will not. And his religion with have nothing to do with it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The enemy is us

By Don Klein

When Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and prominent Republican, was being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos on ABC TV’s "Good Morning America" recently he made an astonishing statement which gives us a look into the contorted mind of modern day conservatives.

"What [Obama] should be doing is following the right things that Bush did," Giuliani pontificated, "one of the right things he did was treat this as a war on terror. We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We’ve had one under Obama..."

Now I distinctly remember Giuliani, covered in the muck from the World Trade Center debris on 9/11, telling the world with great passion via television what an indescribable tragedy and loss of life had been suffered in New York. I also recall that the president at the time was George W. Bush.

So what was he saying? He was following the Republican policy of the Big Lie. He dismisses the worst attack on US territory since Pearl Harbor when the GOP was in power but highlights a lesser incident on the airliner headed for Detroit Christmas Day that miraculously never came off as a symbol of political failure in Democratic times.

Unfortunately the Republican Party has adopted a non-cooperative stance with President Obama. Never in this country’s history has there been such outlandish attacks on a wartime president. Our strength in the past has been to join together in wartime – members of all parties support the president. The Republicans have thrown away this common sense, common-survival criterion.

They are rooting for Obama to fail. To use a term the GOP loves to fling at others: such behavior on their part is un-American. During the worst days of George W. Bush’s presidency never did the Dems want him to fail. On the contrary, they hoped he would succeed by doing the right things. Is it any wonder that less than one in five Americans polled approve of the Republicans today?

That should be enough of an admonishment for them to start being responsible, but it has not done so as we are continually treated to insidious lies like the one stated by Giuliani on TV.

The revolting Right Wing invective is so intense it is nonsensical. Obama is depicted as a communist in one breathe and portrayed in caricatures as Hitler, the supreme fascist, in the next. The poor simpletons behind such labeling are unable to construe that communism and fascism are mortal enemies so you can’t be both at the same time. Of course, we are not dealing with Einsteins in this herd.

The argument most heard is that the Republicans have lost their way. The days of moderate conservatism seems to be over. No more Nelson Rockefellers or Howard Bakers or Robert Tafts, people who dearly loved this country and closed ranks when the US was in danger. No. Now we have detractors at every turn.

We have Congressional buffoons like Senators Mitch McConnell and Jim deMint, and House GOP leader Reps. John Boehner and Michele Bachman. You could get the feeling that every one of them is just hoping for an repeat of 9/11 so they can gloat with political joy no matter how dear the human price. The elected Republicans are is such disrepute that the most vivid voices on their side of the ledger are from non-office holders.

Rush Limbaugh is quoted every day making one pernicious remark after another in support of failure for Obama. Glenn Beck is as nutty as pecan pie, but hardly as tasty, is his outrageous accusations and the strongest voice of all seems to come from the weakest mind – former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

What the Republican’s are against is more evident than what they favor. The Republicans oppose health care legislation, they do not want the economy to recover, they do not want unemployment to diminish, they do not want the wars in Southeast Asia to end, they reject anything that the majority of Americans want.

Why? Simple, because the worse things get, the better they think their chances in the mid-term elections coming up this year. They would rather obstruct action in time of serious stress than to help with the resolution. They are part of the problem, not the solution. And they think this will assure them victory at the polls.

When the history of the first decade of the 21st century is eventually written historians will find it hard to paint the Republican Party with anything other than a morose brush. They were bold and reckless when they held the White House and sour and contentious when the Democrats held it. They contributed to the worst foreign relations blunder in the history of the nation and balked at all subsequent efforts to turn it around.

Their soft handling of government regulations added fuel to the damaged economy and their allowance of widespread outsourcing of industry for the sake of corporate profits contributed unmistakably to the heavy unemployment that followed.

But even worse. After providing all the ingredients for economic failure, they refused to support any efforts by the central government to help industry back on its feet. And what is unconscionable is they now stand on the sidelines with hands drooped at their sides and hoot as all efforts to produce remedies to the problems they caused, palpitate and sputter in uncertainty.

A long time ago I concluded in a moment of deepest pessimism that America is too technologically advanced ever to be defeated by a foreign enemy. If the country goes down it will be because of our enemies within. That’s when I endorsed the famous Pogo prophecy.

"We have met the enemy... and he is us."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Wishes for 2010

By Don Klein

Some of my friends think I am a curmudgeon. Not just because I am old, but because they think of me as a crank, a grouch, an old grump who is mostly dissatisfied with just about everything. That is untrue. I am really a nice guy, and to prove it I will list in this space my fondest wishes for the New Year.

As 2010 begins, I wish:

– Everyone in this country without medical insurance at present will be covered before the year ends.
– That all overweight people, especially children, trim down to reasonable size. That obesity we wiped out.
– Not a teacher, firefighter or policeman is put out of work this year because we cannot afford to pay them.
– Not one child, no matter where they live, no matter what their ethnicity, goes hungry for a single day this year.
– That the American automobile industry bounces back and becomes profitable again, employing thousands of currently unemployed people.
– That Wall Street profiteers lose their money in illegal schemes or at the roulette table.
– That Wall Street hotshots be taxed heavily for their bonuses.
– If we continued to ban foreign pharmaceuticals to be sold here shouldn’t we also ban foreign toys, food, clothing and automobiles in the US market?
– That racial and religious bigotry disappears this year and people be judged as individuals.
– That al Qaeda collapses from its own excesses and from pressure within and without, the way all belligerent regimes have in the past.
– That former Vice President Dick Cheney, unbalanced by the horns he has grown in his head, trips over his tail and pitch-forks himself like a pole vaulter out the top floor window.
– That massive oil deposits be discovered from beneath Nebraska to Idaho so we can end oil imports from Saudi Arabia and watch King Abdallah and his swarmy royalty squirm.
– That more films are made focusing on interesting tales about people and things and not on electronic digital gimmickery.
– That everyone who so desires gets a chance to visit the Metropolitan Opera in New York at least once in their lives.
– That the Ravens win the Super Bowl, if not this year, then in 2011.
– That the Orioles go to the World Series this year just to prove to eternal pessimists that miracles can happen.
– That we have a mild winter with just enough snow to please the kids, a cool spring with enough rain to water crops sufficiently, a warm summer to bring out the bikinis and a glorious autumn of brilliant colors in the woods.
– Viewers turn away from television cable news and turn back to the more reliable habit of reading newspapers.
– There be more television shows like Monk and The Closer and less adolescent comedies like Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother.
– That our courageous troops overseas all return home safely this year.
– That Rush Limbaugh becomes inflicted with an ailment that leaves him with a permanent case of laryngitis.
– That Glenn Beck has a tooth pulled and the truth fairy leaves him with her very special gift which results in him having nothing more to say.
– That Sarah Palin impresses so many Right Wingers that she is assured the Republican nomination for president in 2012.
– The next major barrier to break will be a woman as president – and it won’t be someone with the initials S.P.
– That President Obama becomes more incendiary and re-ignites the universal enthusiasm he generated during the 2008 campaign.
– That members of Congress give priority to serving the electorate first, not their political contributors.
– That truth prevails in politics, in business, in human relations, in journalism
and in advertising.
– That lawyers become seekers of real justice, not exploiters of technicalities.
– That sports broadcasters, especially those on Monday night football, turn off the endless nonsense chatter.
– That NFL football "experts" stop predicting game strategies on television. They are usually wrong.
– That Washington pundits give us all a rest and stop their know-it-all predictions and concentrate on explaining the confusing elements in conflicting news reports.
– That people who feel the need to keep firearms in their homes realize that they are more liable to become victims of misuse of deadly weapons than those who don’t have guns in their homes.
– That Jon Stewart should host a daily one hour network prime time program instead of Jay Leno.
– That true democracy will arrive when politicians stop underestimating the intelligence of ordinary people.
– No one should think it wrong to have a black president because as comedian Chris Rock put it after Obama took office, "why not, we just had a retarded one."
– That those who feel the need for religious proselytization would realize that such behavior draws the opposite result and demeans the proselytizer.
– That cancer would be wiped out, as well as diabetes and heart ailments.
– That stem cell research will begin to reap dividends in health cures this year.
– Excesses in all realms be gone forever and instead moderation will reign.
– That all children be born and raised without disease.
– That children be given opportunities through education to succeed.
– That Tiger Woods and David Letterman find satisfaction in one woman’s bed.
– That intellectualism should no longer be a put down for some people.
And finally,
– I hope good looking women take short steps and wink once in awile when they pass me on the boardwalk or anywhere else. It's good for my psyche.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A new Third World country

by Don Klein

Isn’t this a great country? We have one of the highest standards of living anywhere in the world. We have more great universities than any country. We have world class symphony orchestras all over the land, more than anywhere else. We have great theater, a robust film industry, inventive dance companies and the world’s pre-eminent opera company. More books are sold and read here than anywhere else.

Our women are attractive and well groomed, our men are handsome and rugged, our kids are lovable and smart, we have plenty to eat, almost all of us have autos, we are an inventive, energetic and industrious collection of humans, we welcome foreigners into our society with open arms, our country is beautiful and bountiful, self-confidence abounds, our lives are predominantly pleasant.

We are prestigious in many ways, yet we are becoming a Third World country.

We hardly manufacture anything anymore. The television I watch was made in Japan, the American-made car I drive was manufactured in Canada and yours may have been built in Mexico, my sports jacket comes from Ukraine, my slacks from Vietnam, my shirt from Bangladesh, my underwear from Indonesia, and even my ballpoint pens come from China. If I wore a tie it probably would be Dominican made.

We don’t even supply all the food in our supermarkets. I eat cherries from Chile, shrimp from Thailand, our ground beef has South American meat mixed in it. There used to be just German and Czech beer and French and Italian wines available as liquor store imports but now there is Mexican beer (God protect us) and Australian wines to compete with Milwaukee beer and California wines.

American roads were once cluttered with Studebakers, DeSotos and Packards, all of which have been replaced by Korean, Japanese, Swedish, German and soon by Chinese cars. If you watch carefully there seems to be more foreign cars on suburban roads than American cars.

The Asians have taken over the camera business while German and American photography enterprises are hanging on by their fingertips. Even pineapples have gone foreign. They once came in boatloads from Hawaii, now they are less juicy, less desirable and come from Costa Rica.

But wait it gets worse. Try calling a major company today to discuss your service or a problem with your bill. For the first ten minutes you are interrogated by an intransigent recording. Press No. 1 if you are a new customer, No. 2 if you are an existing customer, No 3, if you need equipment repair, No. 4 if you wish to check the status of a shipment, No. 5 to check your balance, No. 6 for additional options, an so on.

I don’t like being subjugated to a fifteen minute third degree with a robot, even with a soft and sexy voice, and then when I finally get a human being on the other end of the line she is speaking from India with a perplexing accent.

Try to get a medical or dental appointment in less than four months, that is if you are not doubled over in pain or on the brink of death. Try to talk to the your home delivery agent when your newspaper is not delivered and you get an apologetic recording, as if they know they should be answering the telephone when they are not.

You have a 9.30 appointment with the doctor? You will be lucky to see him before lunch. Some doctors don’t understand that an appointment is a joint agreement between the patient and the doctor to meet at a given time. Try calling your stockbroker these days and be prepared to wait.

The following happened to me. I needed to speak to a particular person at an auto dealership where I recently purchased a new car. First I got her voice mail and I asked her to call me. Two hours later, after not hearing from her, I called again. Got the voice mail again. I asked for someone else in her department to talk to. A girl came on, took my message and after I waited eight minutes
disconnected me.

Then I called again and asked to speak to the sales manager. Voice mail again. Left message again. No call back. Called again. Same thing again. Finally got his assistant who gladly took down all my information then said, "I give you a live person." Shocked, I said, "I was under the impression you were live?" He said, "Yes, but it’s not my department, I’ll switch you" and promptly sent me back to the original voice mail I had called twice before – unsuccessfully. Frustration set in.

Finally got to the office manager after an umpteenth call who took charge and called me back with the following explanation: "The work you need has been completed a week ago but the women in charge had to leave for a personal emergency." she said. No one picked up her lapsed work. It just sat on her desk as time fizzled like air out of a flattening tire.

This reminded me of when I was on a business trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico 30 years ago and tried for three hours to telephone the local newspaper office to invite them to a reception we were sponsoring for local businesses. When I finally got someone to answer the phone he said, "Sorry, but Jose is next door fixing a toilet." Imagine an editor of a daily newspaper not available for three hours because he was repairing someone's plumbing.

A colleague explained, "What do you expect. Puerto Rico is the equivalent of the Third World nation."

Today I must ask, is the US becoming a Third World nation, a banana republic whose only crops are indifference, delay and manana.