Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An Asshole by Any Other Name...

I've reached a point where I don't even want to read, see, or hear anything remotely news related for fear of it plunging me into a state of suicidal depression more extreme than my usual morose condition. The news is terrible right now and the only thing that makes it worse is that most of us can't do anything about it. Nevertheless, we are constantly bombarded by the media's onslaught of doom and gloom which comes in two forms: the sudden, breaking news tidbit that makes for a great, apocalyptic headline but provides no details, and the Monday-morning-quarterback analysis of what led up to all the problems that we are now facing. Both forms of news are aggravating because, in the first case, we don't know enough about what they are reporting to discern whether or not it really does have any great impact on us and, in the second case, you're left wondering why the so-called journalists didn't report all this stuff before the shit hit the fan when perhaps the general public could have taken some actions to change the course of events. As Richard Nixon used to say, some battles are won in the press, and if journalists are truly doing their job, they can stir public debate on issues that may have greater impact down the road.

The other night on MSNBC's Countdown, Keith Olbermann rattled through a laundry list of all of Wall Street's sins with regard to lobbying Congress and the SEC to repeal laws and regulations which were put in place to keep both traditional banks and investment banks from committing risky indiscretions that would plunge them into deep financial trouble. Of course, these sorts of pieces get your blood boiling when you know where all this has now led, but why was none of this discussed or debated to any great degree when it was happening. Could it be that the reporters covering the financial beat were unaware of such dealings or, even worse, knew what was going on but showed no interest in reporting it because they could not fathom the depths of the implications? During the 1990s, I saw plenty of financial reporters fawning over technology company CEOs and tech fund managers while the technology bubble was swelling, but none who questioned whether any of this overheated growth could ultimately be dangerous. Only when the bubble burst and we slipped into a recession did anyone talk about it, often in self-righteous tones of "Why didn't someone do anything about this?"

The same could be said about the financial reporting when banks and investment firms were posting record profits based largely on questionable (and once illegal) business practices. Instead of asking these CEOs what will happen when the real estate bubble bursts, they praised them for making tons of money. The fact of the matter is that many of these journalists are sycophants who worship successful people like the reporters for Tiger Beat worship Zac Efron or The Jonas Brothers. They love winners and covet their wealth and power. It's only when they fall from grace that these reporters do any digging, and that's only because they feel betrayed by their heroes and want to exact revenge for being let down.

And why do these corporate whiz-kids fall from grace? For the same reason that rock stars and movie idols end up in bankruptcy court or on Celebrity Rehab: they're assholes. You know the guy who pisses all over the toilet seat? Some of them have MBAs. Remember the guy at work who would argue endlessly with you about some policy even though he was completely wrong but couldn't back down out of sheer arrogance. He's the one with the blind tenacity to make it into the boardroom. The idiot who cuts you off in traffic? He's on the fast-track and no one can get in his way.

Beyond the Brooks Brothers suits and the fancy charts and the financial buzz words, they are all basically just assholes who are out to make a quick buck and to hell with the aftermath. When you're riding that high, it's easy to delude yourself that the ridiculous risk which has doomed so many others will not touch you...especially if you are an asshole.

So what happens to the assholes who create such messes? They get appointed to key government positions intended to oversee the mending of the messes they helped to create. Bernanke and Gaithner and the boys are supposed to clean up our economic woes, and the press are astonished when they don't have any answers. If they thought it was a good idea to tear down the walls of regulation that kept the flood of economic disaster at bay, why would anyone think they would have any clue how to brick it back up? This mess was years in the making, and it'll take years to fix, mainly by restoring the laws our forefathers put into place during the Great Depression so that we would never face a tragedy like that again. Of course, why should we heed history. They wore funny hats and pencil-thin moustaches and drove around in clunky looking cars. What did they know? Our modern assholes are a lot smarter than those old-fashioned ones.

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