Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Monday, November 09, 2009
LAWS OF SUSTAINABILITY
The Laws that follow are offered to define the term "sustainability." In some cases these statements are accompanied by corollaries that are identified by capital letters. They all apply for populations and rates of consumption of goods and resources of the sizes and scales found in the world in 2005, and may not be applicable for small numbers of people or to groups in primitive tribal situations.
These Laws are believed to hold rigorously.
The list is but a single compilation, and hence may be incomplete. Readers are invited to communicate with the author in regard to items that should or should not be in this list.
First Law: Population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero and declining rates of consumption of resources are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for a sustainable society.
B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of "development," that does not plan the achievement of zero (or a period of negative) growth of populations and of rates of consumption of resources. This is true even if the program is said to be “sustainable.”
C) The research and regulation programs of governmental agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and promoting "sustainability" are, in the long run, irrelevant, unless these programs address vigorously and quantitatively the concept of carrying capacities and unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and consequences of environmental problems.
D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.
E) Persons who advocate population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.
F) Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.
G) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause increases in population or in the rates of consumption of resources are moving society away from sustainability.
H) The term "Sustainable Growth" is an oxymoron.
I) In terms of population sizes and rates of resource consumption, “The only smart growth is no growth.” (Hammond, 1999)
Second Law: In a society with a growing population and / or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and / or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.
Third Law: The response time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or approximately 70 years. (Bartlett and Lytwak 1995) [This is called "population momentum."]
A) A nation can achieve zero population growth if:
a) the fertility rate is maintained at the replacement level for 70 years, and
b) there is no net migration during the 70 years.
During the 70 years the population continues to grow, but at declining rates until the growth finally stops after approximately 70 years.
B) If we want to make changes in the total fertility rates so as to stabilize the population by the mid - to late 21st century, we must make the necessary changes now.
C) The time horizon of political leaders is of the order of two to eight years.
D) It will be difficult to convince political leaders to act now to change course, when the full results of the change may not become apparent in the lifetimes of those leaders.
Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. (This must be true even though Cohen asserts that the numerical size of the carrying capacity of the Earth cannot be determined, (Cohen 1995))
A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.
B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources and reductions in the rates of production of pollution can shift the carrying capacity in the direction of sustaining a larger population.
Fifth Law: One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.
Sixth Law: All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity.
A) World trade involves the exportation and importation of carrying capacity.
Seventh Law: A society that has to import people to do its daily work (“We can’t find locals who will do the work,”) is not sustainable.
Eighth Law: Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.
A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human society and dynamic but stable ecosystems.
B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying capacity and / or the sustainable standard of living.
C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as the rate of growth of the population increases.
D) Affluent countries, through world trade, destroy the ecosystems of less developed countries.
E) Population growth rates less than or equal to zero are necessary, but are not sufficient, conditions for halting the destruction of the environment. This is true locally and globally.
Ninth Law: ( The lesson of "The Tragedy of the Commons" ) (Hardin 1968): The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.
A) Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.
B) The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, are also good for society. [This is the Charles Wilson argument: if it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.] (Yates 1983)
Tenth Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.
A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources, it is seriously misleading to state the life-expectancy of a non-renewable resource "at present rates of consumption," i.e., with no growth. More relevant than the life-expectancy of a resource is the expected date of the peak production of the resource, i.e. the peak of the Hubbert curve. (Hubbert 1972)
B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth in the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources while, at the same time, reassuring people about how long the resources will last "at present rates of consumption.” (zero growth)
Eleventh Law: The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by:
i ) technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used
ii ) using the resources in accord with a program of "Sustained Availability," (Bartlett 1986)
iii ) recycling
iv ) the use of substitute resources.
Twelfth Law: When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources that are consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.
A) When the efficiency of resource use is increased, the consequence often is that the "saved" resources are not put aside for the use of future generations, but instead are used immediately to encourage and support larger populations.
B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate use for all available resources.
Thirteenth Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.
Fourteenth Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.
Fifteenth Law: (Eric Sevareid's Law); The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid 1970)
A) This law should be a central part of higher education, especially in engineering.
Sixteenth Law: Humans will always be dependent on agriculture. (This is the first of Malthus’ two postulata.)
A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.
B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to preserve agricultural land. The agricultural land must be protected from losses due to things such as:
i ) Urbanization and development
ii ) Erosion
iii ) Poisoning by chemicals
Seventeenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.
A) By contemporary western standards, Nature's method of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane.
B) Glimpses of Nature's method of dealing with populations that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation and misery.
Eighteenth Law: In local situations within the U.S., creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work.
A) Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate (say from 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%), but this is 5% of the larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.
Nineteenth Law: Starving people don't care about sustainability.
A) If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary leadership and resources must be supplied by people who are not starving.
Twentieth Law: The addition of the word "sustainable" to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.
Twenty-First Law: Extinction is forever.
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The challenge of making the transition to a sustainable society is enormous, in part because of a major global effort to keep people from recognizing the centrality of population growth to the enormous problems of the U.S. and the world.
• On the global scale, we need to support family planning throughout the world, and we should generally restrict our foreign aid to those countries that make continued demonstrated progress in reducing population growth rates and sizes.
• The immediate task is to restore numeracy to the population programs in the local, national and global agendas.
• On the national scale, we can work for the selection of leaders who will recognize that population growth is the major problem in the U.S. and who will initiate a national dialog on the problem. With a lot of work at the grassroots, our system of representative government will respond.
• On the local and national levels, we must focus serious attention and large fiscal resources on the development of renewable energy sources.
• On the local and national levels, we need to work to improve social justice and equity.
• On the community level in the U.S., we should work to make growth pay for itself.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
William K. Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, and the former head S&L regulator, has written the following fantastic new proposal concerning the giant, insolvent banks. Posted/reprinted with Professor Black's permission.
Associate Professor of Economics and Law
University of Missouri – Kansas City
September 10, 2009
Historically, “too big to fail” was a misnomer – large, insolvent banks and S&Ls were placed in receivership and their “risk capital” (shareholders and subordinated debtholders) received nothing. That treatment is fair, minimizes the costs to the taxpayers, and minimizes “moral hazard.” “Too big to fail” meant only that they were not placed in liquidating receiverships (akin to a Chapter 7 “liquidating” bankruptcy). In this crisis, however, regulators have twisted the term into immunity. Massive insolvent banks are not placed in receivership, their senior managers are left in place, and the taxpayers secretly subsidize their risk capital. This policy is indefensible. It is also unlawful. It violates the Prompt Corrective Action law. If it is continued it will cause future crises and recurrent scandals.
On October 16, 2006, Chairman Bernanke delivered a speech explaining why regulators must not allow banks with inadequate capital to remain open.
Capital regulation is the cornerstone of bank regulators' efforts to maintain a safe and sound banking system, a critical element of overall financial stability. For example, supervisory policies regarding prompt corrective action are linked to a bank's leverage and risk-based capital ratios. Moreover, a strong capital base significantly reduces the moral hazard risks associated with the extension of the federal safety net.The Treasury has fundamentally mischaracterized the nature of institutions it deems “too big to fail.” These institutions are not massive because greater size brings efficiency. They are massive because size brings market and political power. Their size makes them inefficient and dangerous.
Under the current regulatory system banks that are too big to fail pose a clear and present danger to the economy. They are not national assets. A bank that is too big to fail is too big to operate safely and too big to regulate. It poses a systemic risk. These banks are not “systemically important”, they are “systemically dangerous.” They are ticking time bombs – except that many of them have already exploded.
We need to comply with the Prompt Corrective Action law. Any institution that the administration deems “too big to fail” should be placed on a public list of “systemically dangerous institutions” (SDIs). SDIs should be subject to regulatory and tax incentives to shrink to a size where they are no longer too big to fail, manage, and regulate. No single financial entity should be permitted to become, or remain, so large that it poses a systemic risk.
1. Not be permitted to acquire other firms
2. Not be permitted to grow
3. Be subject to a premium federal corporate income tax rate that increases with asset size
4. Be subject to comprehensive federal and state regulation, including:
a. Annual, full-scope examinations by their primary federal regulator
b. Annual examination by the systemic risk regulator
c. Annual tax audits by the IRS
d. An annual forensic (anti-fraud) audit by a firm chosen by their primary federal regulator
e. An annual audit by a firm chosen by their primary federal regulator
f. SEC review of every securities filing
5. A prohibition on any stock buy-backs
6. Limits on dividends
7. A requirement to follow “best practices” on executive compensation as specified by their primary federal regulator
8. A prohibition against growth and a requirement for phased shrinkage
9. A ban (which becomes effective in 18 months) on having an equity interest in any affiliate that is headquartered in or doing business in any tax haven (designated by the IRS) or engaging in any transaction with an entity located in any tax haven
10. A ban on lobbying any governmental entity
11. Consolidation of all affiliates, including SIVs, so that the SDI could not evade leverage or capital requirements
12. Leverage limits
13. Increased capital requirements
14. A ban on the purchase, sale, or guarantee of any new OTC financial derivative
15. A ban on all new speculative investments
16. A ban on so-called “dynamic hedging”
17. A requirement to file criminal referrals meeting the standards set by the FBI
18. A requirement to establish “hot lines” encouraging whistleblowing
19. The appointment of public interest directors on the BPSR’s board of directors
20. The appointment by the primary federal regulator of an ombudsman as a senior officer of the SDI with the mission to function like an Inspector General
Choosing to not have medical insurance
He covered the healthcare industry for much of his career and realizes the importance of a safety net. But after weighing the risks and benefits, he is going it alone.
September 21, 2009
Insurance against the unforeseeable, after all, is what makes middle-class existence possible. Yet, as the country debates the merits of reforming the rules around insurance markets, it's worth pondering what value health insurance really adds for individuals under the current system.
I have no insurance partly by accident and partly by intent. I'm not freaking out, though. Should I be? I'll tell you what I know. Then you decide.
A little more than two years ago, I quit my job. It was, on the face of it, a good job, with a high salary, professional prestige and a luxury health-insurance policy. But I was miserable -- so unhappy, in fact, that I started to worry about myself.
I had stopped sleeping through the night. After one particularly grueling 14-hour day, a blood vessel in my nose burst and I had to lie on the floor in the lobby of an office tower while security guards debated calling an ambulance. Without being aware of it, I lost 10 pounds over five months.
What was this fearsome job? Writing about health insurance for a news organization. I interviewed top executives at the nation's mega-managed-care companies. I attended investor conferences, covered earnings reports, wrote about clinical trials, explained Medicare benefits. I learned to love the delectable insurance lingo -- medical-loss ratios, adverse selection, moral hazard, the underwriting cycle -- that make normal people feel as if they're stirring concrete with their eyelashes.
But the deadline stress was killing me, and I decided not to die before my time. I signed up for the 18-month COBRA extension and began paying $447.12 a month out of my savings for health insurance. I assumed I would find a job, with new insurance coverage, soon enough. I didn't anticipate the economic crisis or the collapse of the journalism profession.
When the COBRA coverage was about to expire and I still didn't have a job, I considered the insurance problem from two perspectives: my health status and history -- and what insurance actually buys. The answer I came up with surprised me.
I've always been a naturally healthy person. I eat right and get plenty of sleep. All my life I've avoided unhealthy behaviors like crack cocaine and yoga. My parents are in their 80s and in great shape. There's no cancer or heart disease in the family history. My Scottish grandparents lived to be 87 and 91.
Like a lot of guys who were not especially athletic in their youth, when I hit my 40s I decided to become a stud. I taught myself to swim and started lifting weights. I sold my car 10 years ago and started taking public transit. In warm weather, I ride my bike everyplace I need to go. I've never been overweight. I'm fit, trim, well-proportioned. My body mass index hovers around 24.7. (At 25, you are borderline "overweight," but people with strong bones and lots of muscle mass like me tend to tilt toward overweight in that metric.)
If I were going to develop a chronic disease, I'd have it by now. My blood glucose tends toward the low end, so I'm not going to become diabetic. I have some lower back pain and stiffness from a herniated disk 15 years ago, but I manage it with strengthening exercises and stretches. Knee or joint surgery? I don't like to run. Cancer? I never smoked. I had a colonoscopy at 51 and saw for myself on the video monitor that I'm clean as a whistle down there. I did, however, have early signs of a precancerous condition a few years ago.
I had some tests, and doctors believe it won't turn into anything serious. We are watching the situation. (According to insurance brokers I consulted, however, that condition could be enough to exclude me from qualifying for an individual policy.)
As to heart and vascular risk,I have always had low blood pressure and pretty good, though not ideal, cholesterol. I got my last blood work-up numbers from my doctor and plugged them into the heart attack risk calculator on the website of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. My risk score is 5%. Five of 100 people with this level of risk will have a heart attack in the next 10 years. That sounds acceptable.
So what does a guy like me need with health insurance? I'm the best risk in town, I thought to myself. Why shouldn't I self-insure? In other words, why couldn't I accept full responsibility for my own health expenses?
That's what big companies do. They hire a health insurer to "rent" a network of doctors and hospitals; they also pay the bills for their employees and encourage healthy habits. But the actual medical risk is held by the employers themselves. Companies save a lot of money that way. Risk management is where insurance companies make their big profits.
And so I decided: Why shouldn't I create my own network and find providers who would give me a discount for paying cash? I know how to be a savvy medical consumer. Twelve years ago, I needed a gum graft, and was told my insurance wouldn't cover it. I called oral surgeons until I found one willing to give me a firm price for the procedure. Most doctors don't like to cite a price in advance, but as the U.S. health system moves toward asking patients to pay a greater share of the bill, doctors are going to have to become more responsive to their patients' cost sensitivities.
About a year ago, when I was looking at the end of my COBRA policy in a few months, I talked to the business manager at my regular physician's office about my options. He said the office offers a standard discount to people without insurance, ranging from 20% to 40%, depending on the service or procedures performed. Diagnostic tests and X-rays are another matter, he said. He advised me to check in advance what sorts of discounts might be available. For hospitalizations, major medical centers in Chicago, where I live, are giving pre-arranged discounts, ranging from 15% to 58%, to patients who don't have insurance.
A month ago, I went to the doctor for a checkup. My "intermediate" visit, billed at $100, was discounted to $65, and some routine cholesterol tests, billed at $195, cost me $110. I wrote two checks on the spot. There was no paperwork, no correspondence, no phone calls, no arguing about deductibles or co-pays, for me or for the doctor's office. And the doctor got his money immediately.
The truth is, I still have money in the bank and can afford to pay most bills myself. A disaster costing more than $50,000 would be a problem, but short of that, I could handle it.
A few years ago I worked for a large consulting firm. The head of the healthcare practice used to argue that the U.S. will get a grip on its exploding healthcare costs only if consumers have "more skin in the game," as he put it. Regular people have to face the real costs of their medical options, instead of having them hidden behind employer-sponsored insurance or Medicare, and choose more wisely. I'm prepared to pay those costs, within reason, and consume medical care more sparingly.
Most health insurance payments to providers are for routine services that, strictly speaking, are not insurable events. The real purpose of insurance is to protect you against sudden, unexpected, unaffordable events, for instance, a heart attack or cancer diagnosis. Yet that's not how most of us use our health insurance these days. We use it to pay regular, predictable expenses such as office visits, diagnostic tests, dental cleanings and eye exams.
Giving up conventional insurance that covers all these routine expenses, however, still leaves people exposed to the risk of unanticipated catastrophe, the expense of which can sometimes force people into bankruptcy.
For me, the main medical risk is being hit by a bus or cab, or falling off my bike. But even if I bought a policy, there are no guarantees that the insurance company would pay, that it wouldn't try to weasel out of the obligation.
That brings me to the single most terrifying aspect of health insurance in America today: rescissions. This newspaper has published a drumbeat of horror stories -- notably in a 2006 article and many since -- about Californians who had purchased health insurance and paid premiums in good faith, only to find their policies revoked once they made expensive claims for major illnesses, such as cancer, or procedures, such as heart surgeries. This portrait of the health insurance industry has been horrific.
Around the same time the articles began, I learned that my music teacher had been hospitalized for two weeks in a coma that he had barely survived. Like many creative types, he was self-employed, with an individual policy. His insurer reneged on the bill, asserting that the coma was the result of a preexisting condition. The hospital is now pursuing my teacher for a six-figure medical bill. It could cost him his house. It's one thing when it happens to anonymous people a thousand miles away, another when it happens to somebody you know.
On July 21, the Chicago Tribune splashed across the front page the story of a man who got preauthorization for an expensive back operation. Yet after the $148,000 procedure was done, UnitedHealthcare, his employer's insurer, refused to pay -- even though it had already authorized the surgery. After the patient wrote to the Tribune's "What's Your Problem" columnist, and after the newspaper made inquiries with UnitedHealthcare, the decision was reversed and the insurer paid the bill.
The industry's continued use of rescissions to evade bills that companies don't wish to honor eviscerates the value of health insurance. To a person like me, who is on the margin, rescissions are the deciding factor between purchasing and not purchasing insurance.
As I indicated earlier, I believe in insurance. Honestly, it is foolhardy for a middle-class person to go without it. Yet as long as the insurers can use medical underwriting to exclude poor risks and redline preexisting conditions -- sometimes retroactively -- insurance isn't worth what we're being asked to pay.
I'm looking forward to the day when all of us will qualify for good medical insurance at reasonable prices, with a firm regulatory hand behind it. If we all have to pay into the system in order to make health reform work, so be it. I'll gladly pay if I'm assured of getting the services I contracted for.
In October, I'll hit 12 months without insurance, and I will have saved about $6,000 that otherwise would have padded the profits of the insurance companies.
Eventually, I will have some serious medical expenses, and I'll use these savings to pay them. Between now and then, I'm going to wear my bike helmet and stay off the rollerblades.
Moore is a freelance writer in Chicago and the co-founder of the Assn. of Health Care Journalists.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Oh, and if you want more evidence of predatory behavior, look no further than this article on how banks take advantage of people overdrawing their account with debit cards. The bank knows at the instant of the transaction that the amount requested is more than the individual has in their account, but they don't decline the transaction, just assess the victim (uh, Chaos means the customer) a nice, fat fee.
This fine feature, courtesy of the Washington Post, is an excellent example of both the path downwards that a huge chunk of the US public is about to experience, and a cultural snapshot of the values that have gotten the Empire to the exact place that it now finds itself. It's tragic and pathetic how people who have really no economic understanding of any kind are suddenly hoisted on their own petards by their innumeracy when large forces almost outside their comprehension intrude into their lives (translation: no safety net). Come to think of it, this is an approximation of the economic debacle generally, except that the worst excesses were caused by the largest, most powerful, and smartest (hah!) players. At any rate, in order to preserve the insights for posterity, here it is in its entirety...click on the original link as well, because there is a revealing slideshow which simply must be watched.
For Many Americans, Nowhere to Go but Down
MIDDLEBURY, Ind. -- He sinks into the couch, foot jiggling, his gaze traveling from his wife to the television to the darkness outside, broken now and then by the distant glow of passing headlights.
His mind settles into another round of "What if?"
As in: What if we don't have cash to buy milk, eggs, bread or diapers? What if our unemployment benefits run out? What if we never find jobs?
And then Scott Nichols thinks of the words he doesn't want to say, what for him, a 39-year-old husband and father of two, is the option he has hoped to avoid since being laid off nine months earlier.
They already took free food from a church pantry, cardboard boxes filled with Corn Flakes and bologna and saltines, his wife, Kelly, walking in, head down, while he stayed in the car, ashen. They pawned his wedding ring, sold part of her Silver Eagle coin collection and had help from the Salvation Army paying their electric bill.
Now another cliff approaches: the loss of the home they rent.
"Looks like we'll have to go to your mom's," Scott Nichols says to Kelly, 33, who is in a beige recliner, staring ahead.
Moving to her mother's would mean returning to the rundown industrial town where they grew up, a place that makes him feel dirty, inside and out. They would sleep in her basement jammed with forgotten furniture, a few steps from a pair of cat litter boxes and below three narrow windows blocked by insulation.
Twenty months after it began, what has the American recession come to?
There are signs that the bottom has been reached. The stock market is on its way back up. Retail sales are improving. The overall sense of desperation, so widespread at the beginning of the year, has eased.
Every day come new reports suggesting some improvement.
But underneath all of the reports is this living room.
"Okay," Kelly says.
The people who have just agreed that they are out of options sit in silence, wondering the way out.
"It needs to be paid," she insists. The $40 installment on their Kmart layaway plan is nearly a week late.
"That doesn't leave a whole lot of money," he says. If they pay the $40, they will have $31 for themselves, their 2-year-old daughter and his 17-year-old son until their next unemployment checks arrive in five days.
"This is why we have no money," she says, irritated, fatigued.
These are the conversations that pervade Scott and Kelly Nichols's days.
How did they get here? How did their every other exchange evolve into a riddle that includes the refrain "How much?" followed by "How much do we have left?" How did their horizon become a basement in southern Michigan?
Nearly four years ago, in search of better pay, Scott Nichols took his older brother's advice and followed him to where he had moved years before: northern Indiana and the flatlands of Elkhart County, the country's largest manufacturer of recreational vehicles.
"The RV Capital of the World," as Elkhart's leaders say.
Scott got a job on a paint crew at an RV plant, and by the end of 2007 his income had climbed to $53,000, more than he had ever earned. After work he was the man at the bar with the thick roll of bills, the man he had always wanted to be, buying round after round for himself and his friends. The man with "the full pocket," as he liked to say. He took his son on a fishing trip. He took his family out to eat and told them to order whatever they wanted.
Then gas prices soared, the economy unraveled and demand for RVs plummeted. Over the course of a year, Elkhart County's unemployment rate rose from less than 5 percent to more than 18 percent. Thousands of workers lost their jobs, the casualties including Scott, and Kelly, who worked in accounts payable at another RV company. The crisis in Elkhart drew the attention of President Obama, who traveled there within weeks of taking office. Obama plans another trip to the county on Wednesday to further focus on the economy.
When he lost his job, Scott had no savings, his primary objective always having been to earn enough to cover the rent, eat an occasional steak, feed and clothe their children, ride his dirt bike, fish, golf, play poker, buy lottery tickets, and drink Bud Light.
For two decades, a robust U.S. economy had allowed Scott a paycheck-to-paycheck life, one in which he was always confident that the next payday was ahead. Lose one job, and soon enough there was another. He flipped burgers at a diner. He was an apprentice at an auto body shop. He drove a delivery truck, was a gofer for an elevator mechanic, mopped floors at a burrito plant, worked as a forge operator, and sanded and buffed and painted truck caps and RVs.
But this time, as weeks stretched into months, Scott found himself not only with no job opportunities but also with nowhere to turn for help. His parents, a retired machinist and truck-stop waitress, still live in the same cramped mobile home in which he grew up. His brother, the one who persuaded him to move to Indiana, has been behind on his own bills since his RV company cut his hours. And Kelly's mother, a retired public school teacher, can offer only her basement.
At the kitchen table, Scott opens the newspaper.
"Movie Extras Needed Now -- 45 bucks to register, earn $100 to $300 a day," he says, reading aloud.
A company needs "employees to assemble products at home, $500 weekly, no experience necessary."
Another is looking for people to "earn $3,800 a week working from home, selling information packs."
"Here's that one we got burned on," he says.
Part-Time Inside Phone Sales. Data Entry From Home. Bodyguards Wanted.
He folds the paper and tosses it across the table.
" 'Bee Movie?' " asks Hailey, the 2-year-old, climbing into Scott's lap. He loves his children. He tries to be a good father. He dotes on them.
"I don't want to watch the 'Bee Movie' right now," he says, rubbing his eyes. He pours cough medicine into a spoon and takes it to her. "I know it doesn't taste good," he says.
Five weeks before they will have to move unless they find jobs, every day is a slow-motion version of the one before, the soundtrack a mix of sighs and yawns, whatever is on TV, Hailey's laughter, Hailey's crying, Hailey's whining, discussions about which bills to pay, and infrequent, inconsequential chatter.
"That new Camaro is freakin' ugly."
"Didn't see it."
"It's right across from the library. How could you miss it?"
They always sit in the same spots, as they do today, a Wednesday, Kelly in the recliner, tattered at the edges. Scott is on his end of the couch, clutching a jug of Pepsi that he refills when it empties.
A photograph from their wedding day sits on a wooden shelf in the corner, "Kelly and Scott, July 10, 2004" in script on the frame. Her smile is wide, her dress bright white. He's in a black tux, grinning, his hair a buzz cut, his goatee neat, the mustache pencil thin.
Now, sitting on the couch, 11 months after being laid off, his hair is thick and uncombed, and his mustache full. He has gained 40 pounds since his last day on the job. He needs a refill on his antidepressant but doesn't want to spend money to see a doctor.
"C'mon, Karma," he says to the dog, a docile Labrador and Rottweiler mix. "Let's go get the garbage can. Quick trip. Like the wind."
Scott walks to the end of the driveway, 87 paces, from where he pushes the bin back to the house, a gray mobile home with a finished basement and a garage on three flat acres. He falls back onto the couch, glancing up at a framed print of three wolves, then at Kelly, then at Hailey. His toes wiggle inside his white socks. He yawns.
In the months since his layoff, he has walked into this place or that place looking for work, unannounced visits that resulted in nothing. He went to a factory that makes ambulances. Nothing. To another that sells truck caps. Nothing. Another that produces tops for aerosol cans. Nothing. He heard about an RV plant that might be hiring, but decided he needs more information before he'll get in his car anymore. He refuses to waste gas chasing rumors.
Driving anywhere alone is an expense that needs justification. Driving anywhere as a family is nearly impossible, because their two-door Cougar is too cramped and too sagging to accommodate their collective weight. Their second car, an old sport-utility vehicle, is stranded in a mechanic's back yard, needing repairs that Scott says he can't afford. So they stay home, which is another way to avoid spending money.
There is time to think: about the laundry he needs to wash. Or maybe he'll save it until tomorrow so he has something to do. He imagines the taunting he's sure he'll hear from his other brother -- the brother who has remained in Michigan -- if he moves back there and into the basement: "So you thought you were gonna go down there and make a ton of money . . . "
He thinks about his son, Cody, with his C's and D's and no direction or ambition. What will Cody do in a year when he graduates from high school? He thinks about taking classes to learn how to use a computer, aware that a new skill could help him find a job. The idea infuriates him. He has a blue folder filled with certificates: "Scott Nichols has satisfactorily completed the Advanced Auto Body Course." And: Scott Nichols "has completed 460 hours of training in auto glass installation." And: "Scott Nichols successfully completed 1,020 hours of training in auto painting."
Why should he have to start all over?
"Did you eat all the doughnuts?" Kelly asks.
"What do you think I was eating last night?" he answers.
She studies Hailey, who is on the floor, gaping at the TV.
"She's kind of sedentary," she says.
"I don't know."
"I don't know."
Scott smiles. "Why?"
She rolls her eyes. "I'm going to smack you."
For dinner, they eat breakfast -- pancakes and sausages, which is what Scott had scheduled for this night when he mapped out a month's worth of meals to save money. The handwritten menu hangs on the refrigerator. Another night was soup and sandwiches. Another night was Chicken Helper and cottage cheese. Another night was leftovers. This night, Cody washes the dishes, his shoulder-length brown hair concealing his face as he leans over the sink.
"Homework?" Scott asks.
"Imagine that. If I get another call from school."
"What'd you do, tell them I don't have a phone?"
Cody disappears into his room to play Xbox. The TV is still on, the "King of Queens" fading into "Family Guy," "Two and a Half Men," "The New Old Christine," "Gary Unmarried," and "Seinfeld." As the sky turns black, no one switches on the lights. Kelly and Scott are in their usual places, the living room consumed by the blue glow of the television and an unceasing laugh track.
Monday is the day Scott dresses and leaves the house with a purpose that reminds him of the way he felt when he went to work. Only now he's off to collect their unemployment benefits, electronically delivered to their bank accounts by the state of Indiana: $268 for Kelly, $390 for him.
"Payday," he says, driving to an ATM.
He withdraws $700, which he tucks into a front pocket of his jeans. He buys a Pepsi, four packs of Marlboro Lights and $20 in gas. He pays the electric bill, buys brake pads and a $66 money order for the kids' health insurance, and hoses down the Cougar at a car wash. At the bank, he deposits $500 toward rent.
"Five, 10, 12 dollars," he says, counting his remaining cash.
He has $100 more coming, his reward for winning the NASCAR betting pool at his bar, a dark, smoky joint called the Winners Circle. He walks in just before noon, hoping to find someone, anyone, who might know something about a job. The place is almost empty. The bartender, gray-haired, gravelly-voiced Valerie, delivers his winnings and a $2 draft. He rarely drinks at home or in front of his kids. He never drank at work. But sometimes he drinks here, beer after beer after beer.
"I don't want to end up in a bell tower with a high-powered rifle," he likes to say. "I need to let loose in some way. I'm not going to give up everything."
At 1:10 p.m. he orders his fourth Bud. At 1:44 he orders a fifth, then a sixth. His cellphone rings. He knows it's Kelly before he answers. There's that question again: How much does he have left?
"We're still fine," he says. "Promise! No I'm not! . . . I've only had six. . . . I'm good. . . . This is it."
He downs a seventh beer, then an eighth at 3:04. He drives home slowly. The last thing he needs is a cop pulling him over. He passes Coachmen RV on his left, a plant where he applied for a job six weeks earlier. He passes Evergreen on the right, another RV maker, the sign at the entrance to the long driveway announcing, "Not accepting any applications."
In the kitchen, Scott gives Kelly the rest of the money in his pocket, $70, which needs to last until next week's unemployment money arrives. He hands Hailey his loose change for her piggy bank before falling into a chair and losing himself in a game of solitaire.
Kelly is the one out of the house now, closing her eyes as she sits in a Subway, savoring a foot-long sandwich.
Her thoughts shift to a phone conversation she had that morning with their landlord, when she gave notice that she and Scott would be moving out in a month unless they found work. The prospect of leaving Elkhart makes her think about the place she wishes they were going, a house that exists in her imagination.
"A Victorian," she says. "Four bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, a family room, a living room, a sunroom, what I would call a sewing room, a kitchen, a dining room and a wraparound porch. That's what drew me to it, the wraparound."
She takes another bite and wanders around the first floor.
"The family room was going to be where I kept my plants," she says. "It was going to be soft green. . . . And the sunroom, that was going to be yellow and it was going to have golden wicker to decorate it. . . . And then upstairs, the master bedroom was going to be mostly white with some blue. . . . And the master bath was going to be purple and white and I was going to have a stained-glass window."
She's ashamed that she and Scott have no money. She's embarrassed that they can't find jobs. She didn't grow up this way. In high school, she had a 3.9 grade-point average. She keeps a few old papers in a box, a teacher's "A -- Well Written" scrawled on one, "Very Good!" on another. She got a scholarship to a community college, then lost it after she started partying and stopped going to class. She held a series of forgettable jobs at forgettable places: a bank, a photo lab, a Burger King. She went back to school, finished her two-year degree and continued to work at forgettable places.
She thinks about her mother, a divorcée, raising two daughters on her own and taking them on trips to New York and Washington, D.C., and Europe. She and Scott have never taken a family vacation. They were together for eight years before getting married, mainly because Kelly wanted to save up for a catered wedding reception. Scott would have been happy flying to Vegas and mixing in some gambling. He doesn't need a tux. Or a Victorian.
"And the first bedroom was going to be Hailey's bedroom," she says. "Soft green with a big Oriental rug with a big rose in the middle. And a big canopy bed. . . . "
She takes a last bite of her sandwich.
"I know it'll never happen," she says. "But you can still dream. Wish. Imagine."
She wipes her mouth with a napkin.
"If I made $60,000 and Scott made $60,000, we could probably do it in three or four years."
Her voice trails off.
She tosses her trash in the garbage. The tour is over.
An e-mail pops up on Kelly's BlackBerry, which she got when she was working and has kept because of the cost of breaking the contract. The message is from a chiropractor needing a bookkeeper, a job she thought was filled because she had applied two months earlier and got no response. Now the doctor wants her to take what he calls a "personality survey."
She drives to the public library to use a computer, because she and Scott don't own one. The survey requires that she rate how a series of 80 statements describes her, "4" being "most like you" and "1" being "least." Next to "I am a winner in most situations," she checks 1.
A few minutes after clicking the send button, their landlord calls, asking permission to drop by the next day to see what in the house needs to be fixed. The landlord, also an RV worker, is carrying two mortgages and must rent or sell the place as soon as possible.
Kelly hangs up and listens to her voicemail. A message from the chiropractor's assistant: The doctor wants her to come in for an interview, the first callback she has received in more than two months.
"Astonishing!" she says, driving toward home. "I wish I could stop and pick some lilacs. Look at all those pretty flowers!"
Hailey is sitting on Scott's lap, and Cody in the recliner, when Kelly walks in the house. They're watching "Bee Movie." Kelly tells Scott about the landlord's call.
"They want to do a walk-through tomorrow, put an ad in the paper."
She mentions the call from the chiropractor.
"You're getting a job interview?" Cody asks.
Scott coughs. He's fighting a cold. His mind drifts to cleaning up the house and packing. Kelly wonders whether they should trim the hedges.
"For God's sakes! That's just pitiful!" he shouts. "The things you worry about!"
"It just bugs me, okay?"
"Don't get snappy with me!"
They're silent for a few moments, his thoughts swinging back to the landlord.
"Didn't know she was going to market it that damn quick," he says.
The next morning, as she prepares to leave for her interview, Kelly gives Hailey a children's book to take to Scott, saying, "Ask Daddy to read it to you one more time."
The book is called "What Dads Can't Do," which Kelly discovered when she took Hailey to story time at the library. She hoped its message might lift her husband's spirits.
His voice is a monotone as he reads.
"There are so many things that dads can't do, it's a wonder they make it through life at all. But dads can't give up. No matter how tired a dad gets or how hard life gets, a dad never quits."
He closes the book and hands it to Hailey, who brings it to Kelly, who walks out the door, saying, "All right, wish me good things."
Scott is silent as the door shuts and asks no questions when she returns.
"Want me to tell you what happened?"
He doesn't look up from the wall he's touching up with white paint. The landlord is due soon.
"It's 28 hours, eight bucks an hour," she says. No benefits, she adds.
"You say, 'Thank you, but -- '?"
"Yup," she says. "I make more on unemployment."
They sweep and vacuum. As he wipes down the stove, the sink and the counters, Scott thinks about a guy from his home town he loves to tease. He's over 30, has three kids and still lives at home with his mother. What a loser.
"I can't make that joke anymore," he says.
The landlord arrives with his wife, saying how sorry he is to see them go.
"Tell you the truth, I'm broke," Scott says. While Kelly follows them through the house, he wanders the back yard with Hailey and Karma.
An hour later, over lasagna, Scott asks Cody if his girlfriend is still trying to persuade him to stay with her instead of moving to Michigan.
"I'd rather stay down here," the boy says.
"You understand that life happens?" Scott says. "We've got to do something?"
Scott goes into the garage, mounts his dirt bike, gunning the engine and standing on the pedals as he speeds across the field behind the house, his face slick with grimy sweat. For the first time all day, for the first time in a long while, he seems happy.
"Look at Daddy go!" Kelly says, holding Hailey's hand.
The bike hits a bump and Scott tumbles forward, over the handlebars, falling hard on the grass. His shoulder throbs. No job, no health insurance. He can't risk hurting himself any more. He pushes his bike to the garage and heads back to the couch.
Twenty-two days to go.
A couple of hours north, inside a small yellow house in Jackson, Mich., Kelly's mother walks down 11 dark steps into the basement. She's surrounded by stacks of boxes and milk crates, old chairs shoved against tables and shelves. The ceiling is low enough to touch.
Hailey will sleep upstairs, in a toddler bed already occupied by Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse.
"I don't know what they're going to do," says Diane Lawrence.
She shakes her head and walks up to the living room, settling into an easy chair. Her walls are decorated with antique clocks, a painting of a lighthouse and her mother's 70-year-old wedding dress, enshrined in a frame.
Lawrence leans back. She has no answers, none that she is sure of, anyway. Only questions.
How will three adults, a teenager and a child share a single bathroom?
How long will they stay?
Jackson is about 80 miles west of Detroit, its only recent distinction being that it made Forbes magazine's list of the country's 10 worst small cities for finding jobs. Elkhart was named, too. It was sixth worst. Jackson? Number one.
"There's just nothing available for anyone in this part of the country," she says.
Her friend warned her not to take them in. They're adults, let them figure it out. Lawrence scoffs at the idea. Of course they'll live with her. They're her family.
"It's not their fault the economy fell through the floor," she says. "It's just too bad it happened."
Six days until they have to leave.
"You know what he grossed this year?" a woman asks at Scott and Kelly's barbecue, referring to her husband, an RV worker, who grins as he toes the ground. "Under $10,000."
"We're three months behind on our mortgage payments," she says.
"After I pay all my monthly bills, I've got $40 in my pocket," says a boyish man, a single parent who works two jobs and fixes cars on the side.
"Haven't seen it this bad here in 21 years," says another man, in a baseball cap and bowling shirt, leaning against his pickup, gripping a can of beer. "We've all had to make adjustments."
No one more so than Scott, the host at his own farewell party, who is grilling burgers and hotdogs and hugging friends. He smiles when he sees Richard Oiler, his buddy, who recently got a job painting RVs after being laid off for 15 months.
Soon after he started, Oiler called Scott and told him to get over to the plant to fill out an application. Scott drove over once, then again, but never got a call. Maybe it's worth one last-ditch try before they go, he decides now. He moves closer to Oiler. He says he's going to stop by the plant on Monday to put in another application, and asks if he can deliver it to Oiler. Maybe Oiler could hand it to the bosses.
"See if you can?" he asks. He raises his eyebrows. "See what I'm saying?"
"Right," Oiler says.
Scott wanders away. Oiler sips his beer. He considers himself fortunate to have found a job. But he makes $15 an hour, without the regular bonuses that he and Scott could count on during fatter times. "Made more in high school," he says. Every day, he has to stop himself from talking back to his bosses.
"You keep your mouth shut!" his wife snaps.
Inside the house, Cody and his girlfriend, Brandy, lie on his bed watching cartoons. He wears a black T-shirt emblazoned with the Grim Reaper's hooded face. Thick black liner circles her hazel eyes.
"I have atrocious grades and no money," Cody says, which leaves one option, as far as he can see: the military, although boot camp is not something he'd relish.
"I'm not exactly in shape."
"You could lose weight," Brandy says.
"I'll diet then and if I can't get past that, well guess what? They'll send me home."
"No, they won't, Cody."
He doesn't want to leave their house, his school, Brandy. He envisions the three of them sleeping in that basement -- Kelly, Scott and himself, no walls between them.
"I'm sorry," Cody says, "but this is wrong."
Outside, as the sun fades and a bonfire begins to glow, Kelly keeps an eye on Hailey while Scott wanders from friend to friend, bantering as he tilts his head back and chugs another beer. If anyone says anything approaching sentimental, he obliges with a hug and a promise to return. Then he moves on, laughing as he goes.
After 12 months of trying to fix his life, there is no more fixing to be done. Scott Nichols accepts that he is a man standing in a back yard of a house that soon won't be his own. He's a man with no way out. He's the man with no option but surrender.
Monday: Four days left. He does not go to see Richard Oiler. He does not fill out an application.
Tuesday: Kelly packs up some of her things. A clarinet she hasn't played since high school. A Louis Armstrong CD. Two photographs she took at some other point in her life, one of a rose, one of lilacs. A Shakespeare anthology. She shows Scott a wooden keepsake box. "You can yard-sale that," he says, "along with all the damn candles you got."
Wednesday: They run a few errands in the sagging Cougar.
Thursday: They rent a U-Haul and begin loading, father and son, silent. First the TV, then the couches, their dressers, their beds, the kitchen table, the washer and dryer, his two hunting rifles, then box after box after box, until the house is empty and the truck is full.
They arrive in Jackson by late afternoon the next day, Kelly's mother leading them down those 11 dark steps, apologizing not once but twice for the putrid smell of cat urine.
Kelly sits on a desk and Cody slumps in a chair. Scott is on the bed, arms folded, his eyes lost in the shadows. Kelly's mother offers to ask the cable company about running another line downstairs for their television.
Not necessary, Scott assures her.
"I don't plan on being here for long," he promises. He stands and unfolds his arms. The man with no options wonders what to do next, but there is nothing left to do other than trudge upstairs, unload the truck, and come back down to the basement.
Monday, August 24, 2009
"I would like to sell you some hunger insurance. Are you insured against hunger? Perhaps you should be! Without this coverage, you may find it impossible to continue to afford feeding yourself and your family. With this coverage, not only will you be assured of continuing to get at least some food, but so will I. In fact, thanks to this plan, I will get to eat very, very well indeed.
Here's how it works. You buy a hunger insurance plan from my hunger insurance company, or from one of my illustrious competitors in the hunger insurance industry. The hunger insurance market is very competitive, offering you plenty of consumer choice. You can even decide to go with a hunger maintenance organization (HMO); that would make a lot of sense if you are on a diet.
Whichever company you choose buys up food in bulk on your behalf. Then, should you come down with a case of hunger, you can file a claim, pay the copayment, and get some of the food. Certain feeding procedures, such as breakfast, are considered elective, and are not covered.
The company is in a position to demand lower prices for food from the food providers, and can even pass some of these savings on to you. (But the fine folks in the hunger insurance company do have to eat too, you know.) Of course, the food providers try to make up the difference by charging those without hunger insurance much higher prices, but how can anyone blame them? That's just market economics. There may also be some food-related benefits, such as lower rental rates on bowls, spoons, napkins and feeding tubes (check the details of your plan).
There is just one more twist: you should try to arrange your hunger insurance plan through your employer. You see, it is much more expensive for companies to do business with consumers directly. It is much cheaper and easier for them to deal with other companies, and this allows them to, again, pass along some of the savings. In fact, many hunger insurers may decide not to sell individual hunger plans because group hunger is much more profitable. This is just Business 101: nothing personal. Plus, how can you afford to pay your hunger premium every month if you are unemployed? It goes without saying that if you want to keep your hunger insurance, you better try to keep your job, whether they pay you or not! And if you are currently unemployed, then, well... why am I still talking to you?
I am sure you will agree that this is a damn good system: it offers you consumer choice, a healthy diet, and, most importantly, peace of mind. But, as you may have heard, some people have been clamoring for a so-called "single-feeder system" run by the government. Now, that sort of thing may be very well for those miserable communists, but let me ask you a couple of questions.
First: Do you want to get fed the same as everyone else, even if you can afford to pay a little extra? What if you, say, win the lottery; wouldn't you want to upgrade to the premium plan, and dine on filet mignon, foie gras and truffles like I do instead of the corporate-government-provided Happi-Meals?
But even more importantly, who do you want your children to be when they grow up: lowly, overworked, underpaid government bureaucrats, or fat-cat capitalists like me? Isn't this compelling vision of hope worth tightening your belt for? To be perfectly honest, those jobs are reserved for my children, but yours might still be able to find work as their personal bathroom assistants, if they are docile and pretty... let's pretend you didn't hear that.
But ultimately it is still all up to you, because it is you who, every few years, walks into a voting booth and pulls a lever. And then I have to work with whoever you elect, and bring them around to seeing things my way. We are in this together, you see: you get to pull the lever, but I get to write the checks, with your money. Politicians have to eat too, you know, I am there to help them, and they know it.
Is that your stomach growling, or are you just happy to see me?"
Friday, August 21, 2009
At any rate, Chaos now has a few new axioms to live by, having studied multiple issues of massive importance for the last few years, and here they are:
1. Any problem which requires the vast majority of the public to "wake up," "come together," and act in any sort of unified fashion will fail. E.g., peak oil, peak water, peak resources, global heating, driving slower, etc.
2. Any problem which involves disabling or diminishing the influence of large corporate entities will fail. E.g., health care, agricultural reform, regulation of large financial firms, etc.
3. Any problem which requires more than a modicum of understanding by the public (and most especially, the US public) will fail. E. g., all the above examples mentioned, plus drug policy, gun control, and legalization of homosexual rights.
4. Population control will not be mentioned, outside of China, and some doomer blogs.
5. Discussion of the effects of and the eventual exhaustion of exponential growth in use of finite resources is strictly taboo, in all circumstances.
6. Humans will not change unless forced to by changes in circumstances. Changes in actions will always precede changes in attitudes. E.g., we didn't stop overconsuming and borrowing money for same because we figured out it was a good idea, we just ran out of money.
Friday, July 17, 2009
So what’s wrong with Goldman posting $3.44 billion in second-quarter profits, what’s wrong with the company so far earmarking $11.4 billion in compensation for its employees? What’s wrong is that this is not free-market earnings but an almost pure state subsidy.
Last year, when Hank Paulson told us all that the planet would explode if we didn’t fork over a gazillion dollars to Wall Street immediately, the entire rationale not only for TARP but for the whole galaxy of lesser-known state crutches and safety nets quietly ushered in later on was that Wall Street, once rescued, would pump money back into the economy, create jobs, and initiate a widespread recovery. This, we were told, was the reason we needed to pilfer massive amounts of middle-class tax revenue and hand it over to the same guys who had just blown up the financial world. We’d save their asses, they’d save ours. That was the deal.
It turned out not to happen that way. We constructed this massive bailout infrastructure, and instead of pumping that free money back into the economy, the banks instead simply hoarded it and ate it on the spot, converting it into bonuses. So what does this Goldman profit number mean? This is the final evidence that the bailouts were a political decision to use the power of the state to redirect society’s resources upward, on a grand scale. It was a selective rescue of a small group of chortling jerks who must be laughing all the way to the Hamptons every weekend about how they fleeced all of us at the very moment the game should have been up for all of them.
Now, the counter to this charge is, well, hey, they made that money fair and square, legally, how can you blame them? They’re just really smart!
Bullshit. One of the most hilarious lies that has been spread about Goldman of late is that, since it repaid its TARP money, it’s now free and clear of any obligation to the government - as if that was the only handout Goldman got in the last year. Goldman last year made your average AFDC mom on food stamps look like an entrepreneur. Here’s a brief list of all the state aid that is hiding behind that $3.44 billion number they announced the other day. In no particular order:
1. The AIG bailout. Goldman might have gone out of business last year if AIG had been allowed to proceed to an ordinary bankruptcy, as AIG owed Goldman about $20 billion at the time it went into a death spiral. Instead, Goldman gets to call upon its former chief, Hank Paulson, who green-lights this massive, $80 billion bailout of AIG (with Lloyd Blankfein in the room), at least $12.9 billion of which went straight to Goldman. Moreover, let’s not forget this: both Goldman and Bank Societe Generale had been tattooing AIG with collateral calls in the period before AIG’s collapse, with Goldman extracting a full $5.9 billion from the company during that time. It was those collateral calls that really killed AIG.
Now, ask yourself: exactly how big would Goldman’s profits be this year, if they had to fill a still-extant $13 billion or even a $20 billion hole on its balance sheet from AIG’s collapse? You think it would still be $3.44 billion? What if Hank Paulson had elected to save Lehman instead of saving AIG/Goldman, how big would Goldman’s profits be then? Is anyone even asking this question?
I keep hearing people say, “Well, so what — it’s only fair that Goldman got paid off for its deals with AIG. After all, AIG was contractually obligated to Goldman. Goldman deserves that money, because it was doing the right thing in buying insurance from AIG in the first place.”
That’s bullshit, too. As Rich Bennett over at the hilarious monkey business blog pointed out to me the other day, Goldman was insane and reckless in making those deals with AIG. Goldman wasn’t removing risk from its books by buying CDS protection from AIG, they were exchanging one kind of risk for another kind of risk, counterparty risk. “If you have too much risk to one entity and they go bust, you’re shit outta luck,” Rich says. “They took AIG for a ride, and when the music stopped, they and their partners were going to be taking up the proverbial tookus.”
So to review: Goldman makes insane bets, runs wild on AIGFP’s house idiot Joe Cassano for a while, sticking him with $20 billion in risk, and when it all went to shit — as it inevitably had to — they drove a big stake through AIG’s heart and got the government to step in and pay them off using our money. How’s that for market capitalism? Just like Adam Smith drew it up, right? They’re just smart guys!
2. TARP. Much discussed, no need to really review here. Goldman got its $10 billion. It paid off its $10 billion. Good for them. However, there’s one thing to note here, and it hasn’t been mentioned really at all in the press. It is continually reported that now that Goldman has repaid its TARP money, it no longer has restrictions on its executive compensation. That’s actually not true. The government still holds warrants from Goldman and other companies that it acquired during the TARP process, and until the banks pay off those warrants (and they’re all already trying to pay them off at below market prices), the Treasury still technically has the authority to prevent lavish bonuses. Not that that will happen, of course, and this is yet another government handout — a firmer government would be hard on Goldman to the end of the process, while this government is doing its matador job and waving through these massive bonuses early on in the repayment schedule.
3. The Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. So Goldman last year converts from an investment bank to bank holding company status, which now makes it eligible for a new program that gives commercial banks FDIC backing for unsecured debt. This is not a direct subsidy in the sense of us actually handing over a bunch of money to Goldman, but it’s almost better, in a way. This basically hands over a free AAA rating to the big banks and allows them access to mountains of cheap money, with all of us on the hook if something went wrong. This is the equivalent of telling Exxon it can take crude from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at below-market rates during an energy crisis and then turn around and sell it on the market at whatever price it wants, and pocket the difference, for the good of God and country. Goldman took full advantage of this deal, issuing $28 billion in FDIC-backed debt after its conversion. Exactly how hard is it for a bank to make a profit when it has unlimited access to virtually free money? It is almost impossible for banks to not make money when their cost of capital sinks this low.
Ask yourself this question: has borrowing money gotten any cheaper for you this year? Did someone from the government walk up to you after you foreclosed on your house or missed payments on your charge card and, as a favor, just because you’re so cool, jack your credit score back up to the 99th percentile and invite you to start all over again? Because that’s what happened to these assholes. They made every bad move you can think of and they not only got a clean credit slate but a vitually ceiling-free spending limit.
4. The Fed Programs. By converting to a bank holding company, Goldman also became eligible for a whole galaxy of new bailout programs administered through the federal reserve like the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF); it also became eligible to borrow cheap money from the Fed’s discount window. There is so much to cover here that it would take forever to get to all of it, but the key number to remember here is $2.2 trillion (not billion, trillion). That’s how much the Fed has lent out in assistance since this crisis started and we have no idea how much of it went to Goldman or any other firm, thanks to Ben Bernanke, who refuses to disclose this information. But you can bet that Goldman has taken full advantage of all the various programs designed to relieve the banks of the worthless crap assets they acquired while they were playing roulette the past ten years or so. We just have no idea how much crap they unloaded on the Fed, or how much they borrowed. Would you really bet that it wasn’t much?
5. The TARP Repayment Bonanza. See the story at the top of this piece. As part and parcel of the TARP program, the banks that received money had strict guidelines imposed on them by the state in the area of how they could raise the money to repay. TARP recipients had to issue new equity according to certain parameters, and guess who one of the only major equity underwriters left on Wall Street is? That’s right, Goldman, Sachs. So say International Reckless Dickwad Bank needs to issue $100 million in new stock to pay off TARP; they hire Goldman to do the deal, and since the fee for equity underwriting is 7%, Goldman gets, in essence, a state-mandated $7 million fee. Because so much money was lent out under TARP, the underwriters on Wall Street made a massive bonanza on all the new bank stock. As noted above, Goldman’s equity underwriting department hauled in $736 million this quarter. Does this happen without the bailouts? No. Do the bailouts happen if banks like Goldman hadn’t blown up the universe in the first place? No. You do the math; this is another subsidy.
And that’s just some of the help they’ve gotten. Should we bother to count Goldman’s status as one of just 17 remaining primary dealers in U.S. Treasuries, which naturally did a crisp business last year as the U.S. borrowed its way out of a hole the banks had themselves created? Should we count the ban on short-selling Goldman asked for and got last year? Or how about the seemingly obvious fact that the bank used all of this state assistance and guarantees as a crutch to prop up lots of new risk-taking activity, which was the exact opposite of what was supposed to have been achieved by the bailouts, which were supposed to usher in an new era of austerity and temperance?
As Felix Salmon notes, Goldman last year, after it converted to bank holding company status, announced that it was “taking steps to reduce leverage.” But what’s happened since then is that Goldman has actually been emboldened by all its state backing to borrow more and gamble more than ever. This is the equivalent of a regular casino gambler who hears that the house has doubled down on his credit line and decides to stay up at the tables all night, instead of going home and sobering up. Just look at Goldman’s VaR, or Value at Risk, which measures the amount of money the bank puts at risk on any given day: it’s soared since last year.
Taken altogether, what all of this means is that Goldman’s profit announcement is a giant “fuck you” to the rest of the country. It is a statement of supreme privilege, an announcement that it feels no shame in taking subsidies and funneling them directly into their pockets, and moreover feels no fear of any public response. It knows that it’s untouchable and it’s not going to change its behavior for anyone. And it doesn’t matter who knows it.
There are going to be some people who say that some of this stuff isn’t government subsidy so much as ordinary government contracting. After all, do we criticize Boeing for making airplanes or Electric Boat for making submarines during a war? If we don’t do that, then why should we be pissed about Goldman making a profit underwriting TARP repayment stock issuances, or Treasuries?
The difference is that Boeing and Electric Boat didn’t start the war. But these guys on Wall Street causesd this crisis, and now they’re raking in money on the infrastructure their buddies in government have devised to bail them out. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle — beautiful, in a way, but at the same time sort of uniquely disgusting. That they’re going to get away with it is bad enough — that they’re getting praised for it, for being such smart guys, is damn near intolerable.
Friday, July 10, 2009
WOULD ANY SANE PERSON think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?
Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection. Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.
Or let’s talk water. We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.
Or let’s talk energy. Kirkpatrick Sale summarized it well: “For the past 15 years the story has been the same every year: individual consumption—residential, by private car, and so on—is never more than about a quarter of all consumption; the vast majority is commercial, industrial, corporate, by agribusiness and government [he forgot military]. So, even if we all took up cycling and wood stoves it would have a negligible impact on energy use, global warming and atmospheric pollution.”
Or let’s talk waste. In 2005, per-capita municipal waste production (basically everything that’s put out at the curb) in the U.S. was about 1,660 pounds. Let’s say you’re a die-hard simple-living activist, and you reduce this to zero. You recycle everything. You bring cloth bags shopping. You fix your toaster. Your toes poke out of old tennis shoes. You’re not done yet, though. Since municipal waste includes not just residential waste, but also waste from government offices and businesses, you march to those offices, waste reduction pamphlets in hand, and convince them to cut down on their waste enough to eliminate your share of it. Uh, I’ve got some bad news. Municipal waste accounts for only 3 percent of total waste production in the United States.
I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.
So how, then, and especially with all the world at stake, have we come to accept these utterly insufficient responses? I think part of it is that we’re in a double bind. A double bind is where you’re given multiple options, but no matter what option you choose, you lose, and withdrawal is not an option. At this point, it should be pretty easy to recognize that every action involving the industrial economy is destructive (and we shouldn’t pretend that solar photovoltaics, for example, exempt us from this: they still require mining and transportation infrastructures at every point in the production processes; the same can be said for every other so-called green technology). So if we choose option one—if we avidly participate in the industrial economy—we may in the short term think we win because we may accumulate wealth, the marker of “success” in this culture. But we lose, because in doing so we give up our empathy, our animal humanity. And we really lose because industrial civilization is killing the planet, which means everyone loses. If we choose the “alternative” option of living more simply, thus causing less harm, but still not stopping the industrial economy from killing the planet, we may in the short term think we win because we get to feel pure, and we didn’t even have to give up all of our empathy (just enough to justify not stopping the horrors), but once again we really lose because industrial civilization is still killing the planet, which means everyone still loses. The third option, acting decisively to stop the industrial economy, is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world—none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet.
Besides being ineffective at causing the sorts of changes necessary to stop this culture from killing the planet, there are at least four other problems with perceiving simple living as a political act (as opposed to living simply because that’s what you want to do). The first is that it’s predicated on the flawed notion that humans inevitably harm their landbase. Simple living as a political act consists solely of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the Earth as well as harm it. We can rehabilitate streams, we can get rid of noxious invasives, we can remove dams, we can disrupt a political system tilted toward the rich as well as an extractive economic system, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.
The second problem—and this is another big one—is that it incorrectly assigns blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who are particularly powerless) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself. Kirkpatrick Sale again: “The whole individualist what-you-can-do-to-save-the-earth guilt trip is a myth. We, as individuals, are not creating the crises, and we can’t solve them.”
The third problem is that it accepts capitalism’s redefinition of us from citizens to consumers. By accepting this redefinition, we reduce our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming. Citizens have a much wider range of available resistance tactics, including voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting, and, when a government becomes destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right to alter or abolish it.
The fourth problem is that the endpoint of the logic behind simple living as a political act is suicide. If every act within an industrial economy is destructive, and if we want to stop this destruction, and if we are unwilling (or unable) to question (much less destroy) the intellectual, moral, economic, and physical infrastructures that cause every act within an industrial economy to be destructive, then we can easily come to believe that we will cause the least destruction possible if we are dead.
The good news is that there are other options. We can follow the examples of brave activists who lived through the difficult times I mentioned—Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United States—who did far more than manifest a form of moral purity; they actively opposed the injustices that surrounded them. We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather to confront and take down those systems.
Friday, June 26, 2009
THE GREAT AMERICAN BUBBLE MACHINE
From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression - and they're about to do it again
By MATT TAIBBI
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled-dry American empire, reads like a Who's Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
By now, most of us know the major players. As George Bush's last Treasury secretary, former Goldman CEO Henry Paulson was the architect of the bailout, a suspiciously self-serving plan to funnel trillions of Your Dollars to a handful of his old friends on Wall Street. Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton's former Treasury secretary, spent 26 years at Goldman before becoming chairman of Citigroup - which in turn got a $300 billion taxpayer bailout from Paulson. There's John Thain, the rear end in a top hat chief of Merrill Lynch who bought an $87,000 area rug for his office as his company was imploding; a former Goldman banker, Thain enjoyed a multibillion-dollar handout from Paulson, who used billions in taxpayer funds to help Bank of America rescue Thain's sorry company. And Robert Steel, the former Goldmanite head of Wachovia, scored himself and his fellow executives $225 million in golden parachute payments as his bank was self-destructing. There's Joshua Bolten, Bush's chief of staff during the bailout, and Mark Patterson, the current Treasury chief of staff, who was a Goldman lobbyist just a year ago, and Ed Liddy, the former Goldman director whom Paulson put in charge of bailed-out insurance giant AIG, which forked over $13 billion to Goldman after Liddy came on board. The heads of the Canadian and Italian national banks are Goldman alums, as is the head of the World Bank, the head of the New York Stock Exchange, the last two heads of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York - which, incidentally, is now in charge of overseeing Goldman - not to mention ...
But then, any attempt to construct a narrative around all the former Goldmanites in influential positions quickly becomes an absurd and pointless exercise, like trying to make a list of everything. What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain - an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.
The bank's unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into a giant pump-and-dump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere - high gas prices, rising consumer-credit rates, half-eaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts. All that money that you're losing, it's going somewhere, and in both a literal and a figurative sense, Goldman Sachs is where it's going: The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth - pure profit for rich individuals.
They achieve this using the same playbook over and over again. The formula is relatively simple: Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest, selling themselves as men above greed, just a bunch of really smart guys keeping the wheels greased. They've been pulling this same stunt over and over since the 1920s - and now they're preparing to do it again, creating what may be the biggest and most audacious bubble yet.
If you want to understand how we got into this financial crisis, you have to first understand where all the money went - and in order to understand that, you need to understand what Goldman has already gotten away with. It is a history exactly five bubbles long - including last year's strange and seemingly inexplicable spike in the price of oil. There were a lot of losers in each of those bubbles, and in the bailout that followed. But Goldman wasn't one of them.
IF AMERICA IS NOW CIRCLING THE DRAIN, GOLDMAN SACHS HAS FOUND A WAY TO BE THAT DRAIN.
BUBBLE #1 - THE GREAT DEPRESSION
Goldman wasn't always a too-big-to-fail Wall Street behemoth, the ruthless face of kill-or-be-killed capitalism on steroids - just almost always. The bank was actually founded in 1869 by a German immigrant named Marcus Goldman, who built it up with his son-in-law Samuel Sachs. They were pioneers in the use of commercial paper, which is just a fancy way of saying they made money lending out short-term IOUs to small-time vendors in downtown Manhattan.
You can probably guess the basic plotline of Goldman's first 100 years in business: plucky, immigrant-led investment bank beats the odds, pulls itself up by its bootstraps, makes shitloads of money. In that ancient history there's really only one episode that bears scrutiny now, in light of more recent events: Goldman's disastrous foray into the speculative mania of pre-crash Wall Street in the late 1920s.
This great Hindenburg of financial history has a few features that might sound familiar. Back then, the main financial tool used to bilk investors was called an "investment trust." Similar to modern mutual funds, the trusts took the cash of investors large and small and (theoretically, at least) invested it in a smorgasbord of Wall Street securities, though the securities and amounts were often kept hidden from the public. So a regular guy could invest $10 or $100 in a trust and feel like he was a big player. Much as in the 1990s, when new vehicles like day trading and e-trading attracted reams of new suckers from the sticks who wanted to feel like big shots, investment trusts roped a new generation of regular-guy investors into the speculation game.
Beginning a pattern that would repeat itself over and over again, Goldman got into the investment-trust game late, then jumped in with both feet and went hog-wild. The first effort was the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation; the bank issued a million shares at $100 apiece, bought all those shares with its own money and then sold 90 percent of them to the hungry public at $104. The trading corporation then relentlessly bought shares in itself, bidding the price up further and further. Eventually it dumped part of its holdings and sponsored a new trust, the Shenandoah Corporation, issuing millions more in shares in that fund - which in turn sponsored yet another trust called the Blue Ridge Corporation. In this way, each investment trust served as a front for an endless investment pyramid: Goldman hiding behind Goldman hiding behind Goldman. Of the 7,250,000 initial shares of Blue Ridge, 6,250,000 were actually owned by Shenandoah - which, of course, was in large part owned by Goldman Trading.
The end result (ask yourself if this sounds familiar) was a daisy chain of borrowed money, one exquisitely vulnerable to a decline in performance anywhere along the line; The basic idea isn't hard to follow. You take a dollar and borrow nine against it; then you take that $10 fund and borrow $90; then you take your $100 fund and, so long as the public is still lending, borrow and invest $900. If the last fund in the line starts to lose value, you no longer have the money to pay back your investors, and everyone gets massacred.
In a chapter from The Great Crash, 1929 titled "In Goldman Sachs We Trust," the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith held up the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah trusts as classic examples of the insanity of leverage-based investment. The trusts, he wrote, were a major cause of the market's historic crash; in today's dollars, the losses the bank suffered totaled $475 billion. "It is difficult not to marvel at the imagination which was implicit in this gargantuan insanity," Galbraith observed, sounding like Keith Olbermann in an ascot. "If there must be madness, something may be said for having it on a heroic scale."
BUBBLE #2 - TECH STOCKS
Fast-Forward about 65 years. Goldman not only survived the crash that wiped out so many of the investors it duped, it went on to become the chief underwriter to the country's wealthiest and most powerful corporations. Thanks to Sidney Weinberg, who rose from the rank of janitor's assistant to head the firm, Goldman became the pioneer of the initial public offering, one of the principal and most lucrative means by which companies raise money. During the 1970s and 1980s, Goldman may not have been the planet-eating Death Star of political influence it is today, but it was a top-drawer firm that had a reputation for attracting the very smartest talent on the Street.
It also, oddly enough, had a reputation for relatively solid ethics and a patient approach to investment that shunned the fast buck; its executives were trained to adopt the firm's mantra, "long-term greedy." One former Goldman banker who left the firm in the early Nineties recalls seeing his superiors give up a very profitable deal on the grounds that it was a long-term loser. "We gave back money to 'grownup' corporate clients who had made bad deals with us," he says. "Everything we did was legal and fair - but 'long-term greedy' said we didn't want to make such a profit at the clients' collective expense that we spoiled the marketplace."
But then, something happened. It's hard to say what it was exactly; it might have been the fact that Goldman's co-chairman in the early Nineties, Robert Rubin, followed Bill Clinton to the White House, where he directed the National Economic Council and eventually became Treasury secretary. While the American media fell in love with the story line of a pair of baby-boomer, Sixties-child, Fleetwood Mac yuppies nesting in the White House, it also nursed an undisguised crush on Rubin, who was hyped as without a doubt the smartest person ever to walk the face of the Earth, with Newton, Einstein, Mozart and Kant running far behind.
Rubin was the prototypical Goldman banker. He was probably born in a $4,000 suit, he had a face that seemed permanently frozen just short of an apology for being so much smarter than you, and he exuded a Spock-like, emotion-neutral exterior; the only human feeling you could imagine him experiencing was a nightmare about being forced to fly coach. It became almost a national cliche that whatever Rubin thought was best for the economy - a phenomenon that reached its apex in 1999, when Rubin appeared on the cover of Time with his Treasury deputy, Larry Summers, and Fed chief Alan Greenspan under the headline THE COMMITTEE TO SAVE THE WORLD. And "what Rubin thought," mostly, was that the American economy, and in particular the financial markets, were over-regulated and needed to be set free. During his tenure at Treasury, the Clinton White House made a series of moves that would have drastic consequences for the global economy - beginning with Rubin's complete and total failure to regulate his old firm during its first mad dash for obscene short-term profits.
The basic scam in the Internet Age is pretty easy even for the financially illiterate to grasp. Companies that weren't much more than pot-fueled ideas scrawled on napkins by up-too-late bong-smokers were taken public via IPOs, hyped in the media and sold to the public for megamillions. It was as if banks like Goldman were wrapping ribbons around watermelons, tossing them out 50-story windows and opening the phones for bids. In this game you were a winner only if you took your money out before the melon hit the pavement.
It sounds obvious now, but what the average investor didn't know at the time was that the banks had changed the rules of the game, making the deals look better than they actually were. They did this by setting up what was, in reality, a two-tiered investment system - one for the insiders who knew the real numbers, and another for the lay investor who was invited to chase soaring prices the banks themselves knew were irrational. While Goldman's later pattern would be to capitalize on changes in the regulatory environment, its key innovation in the Internet years was to abandon its own industry's standards of quality control.
"Since the Depression, there were strict underwriting guidelines that Wall Street adhered to when taking a company public," says one prominent hedge-fund manager. "The company had to be in business for a minimum of five years, and it had to show profitability for three consecutive years. But Wall Street took these guidelines and threw them in the trash." Goldman completed the snow job by pumping up the sham stocks: "Their analysts were out there saying Bullshit.com is worth $100 a share."
The problem was, nobody told investors that the rules had changed. "Everyone on the inside knew," the manager says. "Bob Rubin sure as hell knew what the underwriting standards were. They'd been intact since the 1930s."
Jay Ritter, a professor of finance at the University of Florida who specializes in IPOs, says banks like Goldman knew full well that many of the public offerings they were touting would never make a dime. "In the early Eighties, the major underwriters insisted on three years of profitability. Then it was one year, then it was a quarter. By the time of the Internet bubble, they were not even requiring profitability in the foreseeable future."
Goldman has denied that it changed its underwriting standards during the Internet years, but its own statistics belie the claim. Just as it did with the investment trust in the 1920s, Goldman started slow and finished crazy in the Internet years. After it took a little-known company with weak financials called Yahoo! public in 1996, once the tech boom had already begun, Goldman quickly became the IPO king of the Internet era. Of the 24 companies it took public in 1997, a third were losing money at the time of the IPO. In 1999, at the height of the boom, it took 47 companies public, including stillborns like Webvan and eToys, investment offerings that were in many ways the modern equivalents of Blue Ridge and Shenandoah. The following year, it underwrote 18 companies in the first four months, 14 of which were money losers at the time. As a leading underwriter of Internet stocks during the boom, Goldman provided profits far more volatile than those of its competitors: In 1999, the average Goldman IPO leapt 281 percent above its offering price, compared to the Wall Street average of 181 percent.
How did Goldman achieve such extraordinary results? One answer is that they used a practice called "laddering," which is just a fancy way of saying they manipulated the share price of new offerings. Here's how it works: Say you're Goldman Sachs, and Bullshit.com comes to you and asks you to take their company public. You agree on the usual terms: You'll price the stock, determine how many shares should be released and take the Bullshit.com CEO on a "road show" to schmooze investors, all in exchange for a substantial fee (typically six to seven percent of
the amount raised). You then promise your best clients the right to buy big chunks of the IPO at the low offering price - let's say Bullshit.com's starting share price is $15 - in exchange for a promise that they will buy more shares later on the open market. That seemingly simple demand gives you inside knowledge of the IPO's future, knowledge that wasn't disclosed to the day-trader schmucks who only had the prospectus to go by: You know that certain of your clients who bought X amount of shares at $15 are also going to buy Y more shares at $20 or $25, virtually guaranteeing that the price is going to go to $25 and beyond. In this way, Goldman could artificially jack up the new company's price, which of course was to the bank's benefit - a six percent fee of a $500 million IPO is serious money.
Goldman was repeatedly sued by shareholders for engaging in laddering in a variety of Internet IPOs, including Webvan and NetZero. The deceptive practices also caught the attention of Nichol as Maier, the syndicate manager of Cramer & Co., the hedge fund run at the time by the now-famous chattering television rear end in a top hat Jim Cramer, himself a Goldman alum. Maier told the SEC that while working for Cramer between 1996 and 1998, he was repeatedly forced to engage in laddering practices during IPO deals with Goldman.
"Goldman, from what I witnessed, they were the worst perpetrator," Maier said. "They totally fueled the bubble. And it's specifically that kind of behavior that has caused the market crash. They built these stocks upon an illegal foundation - manipulated up - and ultimately, it really was the small person who ended up buying in." In 2005, Goldman agreed to pay $40 million for its laddering violations - a puny penalty relative to the enormous profits it made. (Goldman, which has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases it has settled, refused to respond to questions for this story.)
Another practice Goldman engaged in during the Internet boom was "spinning," better known as bribery. Here the investment bank would offer the executives of the newly public company shares at extra-low prices, in exchange for future underwriting business. Banks that engaged in spinning would then undervalue the initial offering price - ensuring that those "hot" opening price shares it had handed out to insiders would be more likely to rise quickly, supplying bigger first-day rewards for the chosen few. So instead of Bullshit.com opening at $20, the bank would approach the Bullshit.com CEO and offer him a million shares of his own company at $18 in exchange for future business - effectively robbing all of Bullshit's new shareholders by diverting cash that should have gone to the company's bottom line into the private bank account of the company's CEO.
In one case, Goldman allegedly gave a multimillion-dollar special offering to eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who later joined Goldman's board, in exchange for future i-banking business. According to a report by the House Financial Services Committee in 2002, Goldman gave special stock offerings to executives in 21 companies that it took public, including Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and two of the great slithering villains of the financial-scandal age - Tyco's Dennis Kozlowski and Enron's Ken Lay. Goldman angrily denounced the report as "an egregious distortion of the facts" - shortly before paying $110 million to settle an investigation into spinning and other manipulations launched by New York state regulators. "The spinning of hot IPO shares was not a harmless corporate perk," then-attorney general Eliot Spitzer said at the time. "Instead, it was an integral part of a fraudulent scheme to win new investment-banking business."
Such practices conspired to turn the Internet bubble into one of the greatest financial disasters in world history: Some $5 trillion of wealth was wiped out on the NASDAQ alone. But the real problem wasn't the money that was lost by shareholders, it was the money gained by investment bankers, who received hefty bonuses for tampering with the market. Instead of teaching Wall Street a lesson that bubbles always deflate, the Internet years demonstrated to bankers that in the age of freely flowing capital and publicly owned financial companies, bubbles are incredibly easy to inflate, and individual bonuses are actually bigger when the mania and the irrationality are greater.
GOLDMAN SCAMMED HOUSING INVESTORS BY BETTING AGAINST ITS OWN CRAPPY MORTGAGES.
Nowhere was this truer than at Goldman. Between 1999 and 2002, the firm paid out $28.5 billion in compensation and benefits - an average of roughly $350,000 a year per employee. Those numbers are important because the key legacy of the Internet boom is that the economy is now driven in large part by the pursuit of the enormous salaries and bonuses that such bubbles make possible. Goldman's mantra of "long-term greedy" vanished into thin air as the game became about getting your check before the melon hit the pavement.
The market was no longer a rationally managed place to grow real, profitable businesses: It was a huge ocean of Someone Else's Money where bankers hauled in vast sums through whatever means necessary and tried to convert that money into bonuses and payouts as quickly as possible. If you laddered and spun 50 Internet IPOs that went bust within a year, so what? By the time the Securities and Exchange Commission got around to fining your firm $110 million, the yacht you bought with your IPO bonuses was already six years old. Besides, you were probably out of Goldman by then, running the U.S. Treasury or maybe the state of New Jersey. (One of the truly comic moments in the history of America's recent financial collapse came when Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who ran Goldman from 1994 to 1999 and left with $320 million in IPO-fattened stock, insisted in 2002 that "I've never even heard the term 'laddering' before.")
For a bank that paid out $7 billion a year in salaries, $110 million fines issued half a decade late were something far less than a deterrent - they were a joke. Once the Internet bubble burst, Goldman had no incentive to reassess its new, profit-driven strategy; it just searched around for another bubble to inflate. As it turns out, it had one ready, thanks in large part to Rubin.
BUBBLE #3 - THE HOUSING CRAZE
Goldman's role in the sweeping disaster that was the housing bubble is not hard to trace. Here again, the basic trick was a decline in underwriting standards, although in this case the standards weren't in IPOs but in mortgages. By now almost everyone knows that for decades mortgage dealers insisted that home buyers be able to produce a down payment of 10 percent or more, show a steady income and good credit rating, and possess a real first and last name. Then, at the dawn of the new millennium, they suddenly threw all that poo poo out the window and started writing mortgages on the backs of napkins to cocktail waitresses and ex-cons carrying five bucks and a Snickers bar.
None of that would have been possible without investment bankers like Goldman, who created vehicles to package those lovely mortgages and sell them en masse to unsuspecting insurance companies and pension funds. This created a mass market for toxic debt that would never have existed before; in the old days, no bank would have wanted to keep some addict ex-con's mortgage on its books, knowing how likely it was to fail. You can't write these mortgages, in other words, unless you can sell them to someone who doesn't know what they are.
Goldman used two methods to hide the mess they were selling. First, they bundled hundreds of different mortgages into instruments called Collateralized Debt Obligations. Then they sold investors on the idea that, because a bunch of those mortgages would turn out to be OK, there was no reason to worry so much about the lovely ones: The CDO, as a whole, was sound. Thus, junk-rated mortgages were turned into AAA-rated investments. Second, to hedge its own bets, Goldman got companies like AIG to provide insurance - known as credit-default swaps - on the CDOs. The swaps were essentially a racetrack bet between AIG and Goldman: Goldman is betting the ex-cons will default, AIG is betting they won't.
There was only one problem with the deals: All of the wheeling and dealing represented exactly the kind of dangerous speculation that federal regulators are supposed to rein in. Derivatives like CDOs and credit swaps had already caused a series of serious financial calamities: Procter & Gamble and Gibson Greetings both lost fortunes, and Orange County, California, was forced to default in 1994. A report that year by the Government Accountability Office recommended that such financial instruments be tightly regulated - and in 1998, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a woman named Brooksley Born, agreed. That May, she circulated a letter to business leaders and the Clinton administration suggesting that banks be required to provide greater disclosure in derivatives trades, and maintain reserves to cushion against losses.
More regulation wasn't exactly what Goldman had in mind. "The banks go crazy - they want it stopped," says Michael Greenberger, who worked for Born as director of trading and markets at the CFTC and is now a law professor at the University of Maryland. "Greenspan, Summers, Rubin and [SEC chief Arthur] Levitt want it stopped."
Clinton's reigning economic foursome - "especially Rubin," according to Greenberger - called Born in for a meeting and pleaded their case. She refused to back down, however, and continued to push for more regulation of the derivatives. Then, in June 1998, Rubin went public to denounce her move, eventually recommending that Congress strip the CFTC of its regulatory authority. In 2000, on its last day in session, Congress passed the now-notorious Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which had been inserted into an 1l,000-page spending bill at the last minute, with almost no debate on the floor of the Senate. Banks were now free to trade default swaps with impunity.
But the story didn't end there. AIG, a major purveyor of default swaps, approached the New York State Insurance Department in 2000 and asked whether default swaps would be regulated as insurance. At the time, the office was run by one Neil Levin, a former Goldman vice president, who decided against regulating the swaps. Now freed to underwrite as many housing-based securities and buy as much credit-default protection as it wanted, Goldman went berserk with lending lust. By the peak of the housing boom in 2006, Goldman was underwriting $76.5 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities - a third of which were subprime - much of it to institutional investors like pensions and insurance companies. And in these massive issues of real estate were vast swamps of crap.
Take one $494 million issue that year, GSAMP Trust 2006-S3. Many of the mortgages belonged to second-mortgage borrowers, and the average equity they had in their homes was 0.71 percent. Moreover, 58 percent of the loans included little or no documentation - no names of the borrowers, no addresses of the homes, just zip codes. Yet both of the major ratings agencies, Moody's and Standard & Poor's, rated 93 percent of the issue as investment grade. Moody's projected that less than 10 percent of the loans would default. In reality, 18 percent of the mortgages were in default within 18 months.
Not that Goldman was personally at any risk. The bank might be taking all these hideous, completely irresponsible mortgages from beneath-gangster-status firms like Countrywide and selling them off to municipalities and pensioners - old people, for God's sake - pretending the whole time that it wasn't grade-D horseshit. But even as it was doing so, it was taking short positions in the same market, in essence betting against the same crap it was selling. Even worse, Goldman bragged about it in public. "The mortgage sector continues to be challenged," David Viniar, the bank's chief financial officer, boasted in 2007. "As a result, we took significant markdowns on our long inventory positions .... However, our risk bias in that market was to be short, and that net short position was profitable." In other words, the mortgages it was selling were for chumps. The real money was in betting against those same mortgages.
"That's how audacious these assholes are," says one hedge-fund manager. "At least with other banks, you could say that they were just dumb - they believed what they were selling, and it blew them up. Goldman knew what it was doing." I ask the manager how it could be that selling something to customers that you're actually betting against - particularly when you know more about the weaknesses of those products than the customer - doesn't amount to securities fraud.
"It's exactly securities fraud," he says. "It's the heart of securities fraud."
Eventually, lots of aggrieved investors agreed. In a virtual repeat of the Internet IPO craze, Goldman was hit with a wave of lawsuits after the collapse of the housing bubble, many of which accused the bank of withholding pertinent information about the quality of the mortgages it issued. New York state regulators are suing Goldman and 25 other underwriters for selling bundles of crappy Countrywide mortgages to city and state pension funds, which lost as much as $100 million in the investments. Massachusetts also investigated Goldman for similar misdeeds, acting on behalf of 714 mortgage holders who got stuck ho1ding predatory loans. But once again, Goldman got off virtually scot-free, staving off prosecution by agreeing to pay a paltry $60 million - about what the bank's CDO division made in a day and a half during the real estate boom.
The effects of the housing bubble are well known - it led more or less directly to the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG, whose toxic portfolio of credit swaps was in significant part composed of the insurance that banks like Goldman bought against their own housing portfolios. In fact, at least $13 billion of the taxpayer money given to AIG in the bailout ultimately went to Goldman, meaning that the bank made out on the housing bubble twice: It hosed the investors who bought their horseshit CDOs by betting against its own crappy product, then it turned around and hosed the taxpayer by making him payoff those same bets.
And once again, while the world was crashing down all around the bank, Goldman made sure it was doing just fine in the compensation department. In 2006, the firm's payroll jumped to $16.5 billion - an average of $622,000 per employee. As a Goldman spokesman explained, "We work very hard here."
But the best was yet to come. While the collapse of the housing bubble sent most of the financial world fleeing for the exits, or to jail, Goldman boldly doubled down - and almost single-handedly created yet another bubble, one the world still barely knows the firm had anything to do with.
BUBBLE #4 - $4 A GALLON
By the beginning of 2008, the financial world was in turmoil. Wall Street had spent the past two and a half decades producing one scandal after another, which didn't leave much to sell that wasn't tainted. The terms junk bond, IPO, subprime mortgage and other once-hot financial fare were now firmly associated in the public's mind with scams; the terms credit swaps and CDOs were about to join them. The credit markets were in crisis, and the mantra that had sustained the fantasy economy throughout the Bush years - the notion that housing prices never go down - was now a fully exploded myth, leaving the Street clamoring for a new bullshit paradigm to sling.
Where to go? With the public reluctant to put money in anything that felt like a paper investment, the Street quietly moved the casino to the physical-commodities market - stuff you could touch: corn, coffee, cocoa, wheat and, above all, energy commodities, especially oil. In conjunction with a decline in the dollar, the credit crunch and the housing crash caused a "flight to commodities." Oil futures in particular skyrocketed, as the price of a single barrel went from around $60 in the middle of 2007 to a high of $147 in the summer of 2008.
That summer, as the presidential campaign heated up, the accepted explanation for why gasoline had hit $4.11 a gallon was that there was a problem with the world oil supply. In a classic example of how Republicans and Democrats respond to crises by engaging in fierce exchanges of moronic irrelevancies, John McCain insisted that ending the moratorium on offshore drilling would be "very helpful in the short term," while Barack Obama in typical liberal-arts yuppie style argued that federal investment in hybrid cars was the way out.
GOLDMAN TURNED A SLEEPY OIL MARKET INTO A GIANT BETTING PARLOR - SPIKING PRICES AT THE PUMP.
But it was all a lie. While the global supply of oil will eventually dry up, the short-term flow has actually been increasing. In the six months before prices spiked, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the world oil supply rose from 85.24 million barrels a day to 85.72 million. Over the same period, world oil demand dropped from 86.82 million barrels a day to 86.07 million. Not only was the short-term supply of oil rising, the demand for it was falling - which, in classic economic terms, should have brought prices at the pump down.
So what caused the huge spike in oil prices? Take a wild guess. Obviously Goldman had help - there were other players in the physical-commodities market - but the root cause had almost everything to do with the behavior of a few powerful actors determined to turn the once-solid market into a speculative casino. Goldman did it by persuading pension funds and other large institutional investors to invest in oil futures - agreeing to buy oil at a certain price on a fixed date. The push transformed oil from a physical commodity, rigidly subject to supply and demand, into something to bet on, like a stock. Between 2003 and 2008, the amount of speculative money in commodities grew from $13 billion to $317 billion, an increase of 2,300 percent. By 2008, a barrel of oil was traded 27 times, on average, before it was actually delivered and consumed.
As is so often the case, there had been a Depression-era law in place designed specifically to prevent this sort of thing. The commodities market was designed in large part to help farmers: A grower concerned about future price drops could enter into a contract to sell his corn at a certain price for delivery later on, which made him worry less about building up stores of his crop. When no one was buying corn, the farmer could sell to a middleman known as a "traditional speculator," who would store the grain and sell it later, when demand returned. That way, someone was always there to buy from the farmer, even when the market temporarily had no need for his crops.
In 1936, however, Congress recognized that there should never be more speculators in the market than real producers and consumers. If that happened, prices would be affected by something other than supply and demand, and price manipulations would ensue. A new law empowered the Commodity Futures Trading Commission - the very same body that would later try and fail to regulate credit swaps - to place limits on speculative trades in commodities. As a result of the CFTC's oversight, peace and harmony reigned in the commodities markets for more than 50 years.
All that changed in 1991 when, unbeknownst to almost everyone in the world, a Goldman-owned commodities-trading subsidiary called J. Aron wrote to the CFTC and made an unusual argument. Farmers with big stores of corn, Goldman argued, weren't the only ones who needed to hedge their risk against future price drops - Wall Street dealers who made big bets on oil prices also needed to hedge their risk, because, well, they stood to lose a lot too.
This was complete and utter crap - the 1936 law, remember, was specifically designed to maintain distinctions between people who were buying and selling real tangible stuff and people who were trading in paper alone. But the CFTC, amazingly, bought Goldman's argument. It issued the bank a free pass, called the "Bona Fide Hedging" exemption, allowing Goldman's subsidiary to call itself a physical hedger and escape virtually all limits placed on speculators. In the years that followed, the commission would quietly issue 14 similar exemptions to other companies.
Now Goldman and other banks were free to drive more investors into the commodities markets, enabling speculators to place increasingly big bets. That 1991 letter from Goldman more or less directly led to the oil bubble in 2008, when the number of speculators in the market - driven there by fear of the falling dollar and the housing crash - finally overwhelmed the real physical suppliers and consumers. By 2008, at least three quarters of the activity on the commodity exchanges was speculative, according to a congressional staffer who studied the numbers - and that's likely a conservative estimate. By the middle of last summer, despite rising supply and a drop in demand, we were paying $4 a gallon every time we pulled up to the pump.
What is even more amazing is that the letter to Goldman, along with most of the other trading exemptions, was handed out more or less in secret. "I was the head of the division of trading and markets, and Brooksley Born was the chair of the CFTC," says Greenberger, "and neither of us knew this letter was out there." In fact, the letters only came to light by accident. Last year, a staffer for the House Energy and Commerce Committee just happened to be at a briefing when officials from the CFTC made an offhand reference to the exemptions.
"1 had been invited to a briefing the commission was holding on energy," the staffer recounts. "And suddenly in the middle of it, they start saying, 'Yeah, we've been issuing these letters for years now.' I raised my hand and said, 'Really? You issued a letter? Can I see it?' And they were like, 'Duh, duh.' So we went back and forth, and finally they said, 'We have to clear it with Goldman Sachs.' I'm like, 'What do you mean, you
have to clear it with Goldman Sachs?'"
The CFTC cited a rule that prohibited it from releasing any information about a company's current position in the market. But the staffer's request was about a letter that had been issued 17 years earlier. It no longer had anything to do with Goldman's current position. What's more, Section 7 of the 1936 commodities law gives Congress the right to any information it wants from the commission. Still, in a classic example of how complete Goldman's capture of government is, the CFTC waited until it got clearance from the bank before it turned the letter over.
Armed with the semi-secret government exemption, Goldman had become the chief designer of a giant commodities betting parlor. Its Goldman Sachs Commodities Index - which tracks the prices of 24 major commodities but is overwhelmingly weighted toward oil - became the place where pension funds and insurance companies and other institutional investors could make massive long-term bets on commodity prices. Which was all well and good, except for a couple of things. One was that index speculators are mostly "long only" bettors, who seldom if ever take short positions - meaning they only bet on prices to rise. While this kind of behavior is good for a stock market, it's terrible for commodities, because it continually forces prices upward. "If index speculators took short positions as well as long ones, you'd see them pushing prices both up and down," says Michael Masters, a hedge-fund manager who has helped expose the role of investment banks in the manipulation of oil prices. "But they only push prices in one direction: up."
Complicating matters even further was the fact that Goldman itself was cheerleading with all its might for an increase in oil prices. In the beginning of 2008, Arjun Murti, a Goldman analyst, hailed as an "oracle of oil" by The New York Times, predicted a "super spike" in oil prices, forecasting a rise to $200 a barrel. At the time Goldman was heavily invested in oil through its commodities-trading subsidiary, J. Aron; it also owned a stake in a major oil refinery in Kansas, where it warehoused the crude it bought and sold. Even though the supply of oil was keeping pace with demand, Murti continually warned of disruptions to the world oil supply, going so far as to broadcast the fact that he owned two hybrid cars. High prices, the bank insisted, were somehow the fault of the piggish American consumer; in 2005, Goldman analysts insisted that we wouldn't know when oil prices would fall until we knew "when American consumers will stop buying gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and instead seek fuel-efficient alternatives."
But it wasn't the consumption of real oil that was driving up prices - it was the trade in paper oil. By the summer of2008, in fact, commodities speculators had bought and stockpiled enough oil futures to fill 1.1 billion barrels of crude, which meant that speculators owned more future oil on paper than there was real, physical oil stored in all of the country's commercial storage tanks and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve combined. It was a repeat of both the Internet craze and the housing bubble, when Wall Street jacked up present-day profits by selling suckers shares of a fictional fantasy future of endlessly rising prices.
In what was by now a painfully familiar pattern, the oil-commodities melon hit the pavement hard in the summer of 2008, causing a massive loss of wealth; crude prices plunged from $147 to $33. Once again the big losers were ordinary people. The pensioners whose funds invested in this crap got massacred: CalPERS, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, had $1.1 billion in commodities when the crash came. And the damage didn't just come from oil. Soaring food prices driven by the commodities bubble led to catastrophes across the planet, forcing an estimated 100 million people into hunger and sparking food riots throughout the Third World.
Now oil prices are rising again: They shot up 20 percent in the month of May and have nearly doubled so far this year. Once again, the problem is not supply or demand. "The highest supply of oil in the last 20 years is now," says Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan who serves on the House energy committee. "Demand is at a 10-year low. And yet prices are up."
Asked why politicians continue to harp on things like drilling or hybrid cars, when supply and demand have nothing to do with the high prices, Stupak shakes his head. "I think they just don't understand the problem very well," he says. "You can't explain it in 30 seconds, so politicians ignore it."