Sunday, August 3, 2008

Column #2 A Disturbing Image From the Past

(Week 1 - Tuesday July 29)

On the front page of the Tuesday, July 15 edition of the New York Times, was a photograph of a long line of people anxiously waiting to get into a bank the day before. I experienced this as a disturbing image, the like of which I had seen only in history books. It was, in a manner of speaking, an old-fashioned "run on the bank." To my knowledge, not since the Depression has such a picture been emblazoned across the front page of an American newspaper.

The particular institution being besieged was IndyMac bank in Pasadena, California, but the accompanying article offered the view that the banking sector itself was experiencing a growing crisis of confidence in the eyes of the public and the financial world alike, and that this initial rush on one of their members was feared to be the start of the unraveling of the banking system itself.

Of course, this is barely the tip of the catastrophic-financial-news iceberg. One could go on to find all the "latest" on the sub-prime housing crisis, the Bear-Stearns collapse, the galloping federal deficit, the personal debt crisis, the balance of payment deficit, the loss of jobs to poverty-wage foreign districts, the lack of money to repair crumbling infrastructure, the tens of millions of people without health insurance, the shrinking middle class, plus failing companies, public budget crises and private bankruptcies virtually everywhere. Such distressing stories are invariably accompanied by the calming voices of experts, officials and politicians assuring us that there is no reason for alarm, and offering their own good advice on how all this might be remedied. Notwithstanding, over the decades the problems seem only to be mounting.

When it comes to matters of money, it might be fairly asked, is there any good news anymore? Moreover, in the realm of finance, is "the news" even news, or has it become essentially a dreary rehashing of the same old statistics, economic jargon, and outmoded theories?

As I read and listen through all the supposedly insightful analysis on the economy in the media, I never fail to experience the sinking feeling that I have heard all of this before. Despite the masses of words offered daily, I detect hardly a new idea. The whole public "debate" about money and economics seems to drone on endlessly, with no solutions in sight.

Are there solutions? Seeking the answer to this question is critical, and it suggests other questions as well.

Is the seemingly insoluble economic dysfunction of our time something that has descended haplessly upon us, or does it have causes that can be identified, understood and remedied? Clearly, we are a society that is preoccupied with money, lives immersed in its flow, and prides itself on its financial sophistication. Moreover, we have developed complex skills and great institutions with which to manipulate the medium. Still, it might be asked, do we, individually and collectively, yet lack critically needed wisdom and understanding about money's essential nature?

In my own mind, I liken our society's current experience with respect to money to a school of fish that is just now becoming aware of the water it has been swimming in. We have attained an impressive facility in navigating its immersion in an outer mechanical sense, but the headlines suggest that a deeper consciousness of the medium eludes us, and that the price of that failing has become unsustainable. Money, it might be argued, has taken on a life of its own, and has effectively gotten out of human control. So, how can we begin to see money clearly? I will pick up on that thread in the next column.

Richard Kotlarz

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