Posts Tagged ‘economy

REWIND: History Keeps Repeating Itself in Europe

- June 25th, 2012

I wrote this piece in November 2011. It is a dark, pessimistic look at how the European Union and the Euro Zone were both built on fatally flawed designs that allowed massive widespread abuse and lying and cheating without penalty  and how  both structures have no built-in realistic and effective measures for dealing with the type of overwhelming  financial crisis that abuse, lying and cheating inevitably led to.

It is now almost eight months later. I would love to be able to say the Europeans have gotten their act together in that time and are now on the long, slow, hard road to recovery. I can’t. They’re still dithering and denying and backstabbing  and lying and cheating and dancing a frantic, pointless jig as the continent burns around them. Some of the players have changed, but the story is still the same.

I am, if anything, more pessimistic now about Europe’s future than I was eight months ago. The fire is spreading.

Probably the only thing I see differently now is that I believe Greece will choose to leave the Euro Zone, not be kicked out of it. But the timetable is still the same: I said 18 months in November 2011 and that makes it about 10 months from today. Next spring, in other words.

One other aspect that is apparent now (but largely unspoken in the public debate, as far as I can see) is that the contagion has spread so far and is so deeply rooted now that Germany — seen, with increasingly less confidence, as the bailout saviour of  EU members on the edge — is worried about its own future. The DNA-embedded fear of the scourge of hyper-inflation that devastated the German economy and society in the 1920s is rising to the surface now in Deutschland. Every time Angela Merkel says “No” is another tightening of the life vest.

I fear for the future of Europe and I feel deep sorrow and pity for the anguish the European peoples will be put through soon. The hard times now are nothing compared to the hard times ahead. It doesn’t take away any of the hurt and pain to say the Europeans brought it on themselves by confidently, arrogantly placing their well-being in the maws of such obviously, intrinsically, fatally flawed and criminally useless institutions as the European Union and the Euro common currency.

I would weep but I have no more tears. Here’s what I had to say in November 2011: 

 

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I always used to wonder how Europe — the mother of “Western” civilization — could watch itself helplessly descend into one 20th Century cataclysm after another without putting on the brakes (or at least downgearing enough to counter the slo-mo slide to disaster).

You know the litany of Europe’s avoidable 20th Century debacles:

Sub-regional rivalries and intrigue coupled with arrogance, stupidity and petty personal jealousies and hubris leading to the firestorm of World War I; then the crushing burden of massive post-war reparations heaped on Germany by the victorious allies, leading to the crippling of the German economy and hyperinflation, exacerbated  by the impact of Wall Street’s 2008-like fraud-based 1929-30 meltdown, which in turn caused the global devastation of the Great Depression; all of which led, in turn, to the collapse of hope and social structure that created the opportunity for ruthlessly opportunistic predators like Adolf Hitler to seize power; which in turn led to the willfully blind, criminally negligent appeasement policies of Britain and France through the 1930s, which in turn led to the even greater cataclysm of World War II and the Holocaust. (The tyranny, terror and mass murder of Soviet Stalinist Russia falls into this daisy-chain of avoidable disasters somewhere too, as does the nuclear Cold War which mutated European life for the last half of the 20th Century.)

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I used to look back at that history of created chaos, self-inflicted misery, lost opportunities, and toxically craven “leaders” and wonder how, step by step, Europe could knowingly, deliberately tear itself apart time after time after time.

I don’t wonder anymore. Now I see it unfolding on a daily basis and I know what it would have been like to watch the European tragedy unfold in 1913 or 1923 or 1933 or 1943 or 1953.

Dumb and stupid and self-created and so unnecessary — but so inevitable in its slow, ponderous, irreversible course. It’s like watching lava flow to the sea or an imploded skyscraper collapsing in hang-time.

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The political, administrative and regulatory house of cards that is the European Union and its layer cake of unaccountable  “commissioners,” mandarins, bureaucrats and parasitic dependents is incapable of slowing — let alone reversing — the course of Europe’s current slo-mo disaster.

The European Union, as an institution,  is as useless, self-serving, mendacious and malignantly hollow as the League of Nations (basically a European forum) was in dealing with the real economic, social and political cancers of the 1920s and ’30s.

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As Benito Mussolini said in 1936: “The League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.” The same could easily be said today of the EU.

So here comes a new century of European debacles.

The rest of the world isn’t much better (Wall Street, especially, has a habit of endlessly repeating itself — inflate financial balloon, reap unconscionable profits by rubbing said balloon, cry tears of self-pity when balloon inevitably bursts while ignoring the real-life casualties, raid the cookie jar for comfort compensation, inflate new balloon — all done with the enabling connivance of an American political establishment larded with bought-and-paid-for lackeys.)

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But Wall Street’s crimes have a rather direct thuggery to them — take the money and run. By contrast, the Europeans have turned self-immolation into an art form, a ghastly spectacle impossible to take your eyes off, not beautiful but mesmerizing.

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I sense a deep level of here-we-go-again fatalism in the disconnect between the general public in much of Europe and their governments, both at the national and larger (what they call “supranational”) EU levels.

This is, in part, because the European Union was the creation of economic and political elites that told the common people, “This is an important, necessary thing that is far too complicated and intricate for your little mind to comprehend. Just fasten your seatbelt and do what you’re told.”

The cross-over of responsibilities, powers and interests between national government and the EU infrastructure is mind-boggling (purposefully confusing, really) in a Byzantine, constantly morphing labyrinth for which no one has a map — although the governing nabobs pretend they do, much like the Wizard of Oz.

As Wikipedia puts it, “The EU operates through a hybrid system of supranational independent institutions and intergovernmentally made decisions negotiated by the member states.”

Individual Europeans get to vote for members of the European Parliament as well as for their own national governments, but the degree of general apathy felt toward the European Parliament bears a direct relationship to the uselessness and powerlessness of that body.

Because the European Parliament is really the lowest rung on an organizational ladder that is controlled more by non-elected functionaries than by democratically chosen representatives.

The principal executive body of the EU is the “European Council,” made up of the heads of government of the (current) 27 EU member states plus the (unelected) president of the European Commission (more about that body later). This group gets together a few times a year, but mainly to set vague policy goals and rubber-stamp the policy plans of the unelected mandarins.

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Not to be confused with the European Council of government leaders is  the “Council of the European Union,”  a loosey-goosey label for gatherings of specific cabinet ministers from the different member states configured to work out policies and deals on specific areas of interest like agriculture and telecommunications and so on. There are 10 different “configurations” involving about 350 ministers for this non-elected group, which is in turn overseen by a “General Affairs Council” made up of most senior national ministers, usually the foreign minister of each member country.

The “Council of the European Union” votes on EU legislation which is then passed on to the pretty-much-useless (but elected) European Parliament for debate and (usually) rubber-stamping.

Now here’s an important point: The “Council of the European Union” can constitutionally only legislate on the basis of (to quote the council itself) “proposals submitted to it by the European Commission.”

What, you may ask, is the “European Commission?”

Good question because the European Commission is the most important, most powerful body in the EU galaxy apart from the head-of-government “European Council.”

The “European Commission” is again made up of representatives from each of the 27 EU member states plus the president of the commission. Each member of the commission is appointed by his or her national government and each is responsible for one or more areas of trans-European policy making.

Although they hold the greatest degree of direct power in the entire European Union command structure, these commissioners are not elected by the people of Europe as a whole or even by the electorate of the member nations from which they come.

They are “designated” by the governments of their own countries and “confirmed” for five years terms by the European Parliament. And then they are pretty much like the gods of Greek mythology sitting on Mount Olympus — or, to put a more modern spin on it, like members of the Olympic International Organizing Committee.

Most of the commission members are hack politicians who have served their time in government in their home countries and done stints in the European Parliament (to get their pan-European stripes), who know how to accommodate and negotiate and blow hot and cold, and live off the fat of the land.

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At their head is the President of the European Commission, usually a veteran of the commission who has proven himself adept at serving the needs of the people who put him in office — which is NOT the general populace of Europe, since — once again — the president is selected,. not elected.

And way, way down there at the bottom of the pile is the only part of this whole complex mess that is actually elected by the people — the European Parliament, made up of 736 members elected for five-year terms by the people in their home countries.

Of course, as the only directly elected participants in the EU governmental/legislative/administrative system, the members of the European Parliament have the least input of the hundreds, nay thousands, of mandarins, peacocks and cheeseburgers who run the European Union.

They only get to discuss and approve legislation that has been handed down to them by the appointed Council of the European Union, which has in turn approved policies and legislation based exclusively on proposals put forward by the appointed European Commission.

The individual members of the European Parliament have far less power than a member of Toronto Council — if only because there are only 45 councillors, which is almost 700 fewer individual voices — and votes — than the clamouring, fractured, powerless horde of window-dressers in Brussels.

So that’s your basic European Union.

No wonder the whole place is sliding down a very slippery slope with no functioning handbrakes. Everybody involved in the process has been too busy for too long looking after special interests and cutting deals with other special interests to grease the process.

And nobody is accountable. It’s always somebody else’s fault, some other governing body’s responsibility, or some individual country’s jurisdiction.

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One thing to keep in mind is the “Euro Zone” — the 17 countries using the Euro as their common currency — is not the same thing as the 27-member European Union. Some EU nations — Britain, the Scandinavians  — chose NOT to give up their individual national currencies , while others  — most of the former Soviet Bloc nations of Eastern Europe — have not yet established the capitalist credentials to qualify them for access to the Euro — and its supposed benefits.

The benefit for some members (read Southern Europe for the purposes of this discussion) was that it allowed them to piggyback on the platinum-card credit rating of other members (read Northern Europe). The benefit for Northern Europe was that the relative economic weakness of Southern Europe held the Euro down and kept in check inflationary pressure on some high-performance economies (read Germany and, to a substantially lesser extent, France).

Although the Euro isn’t synonymous with the European Union, it is still the creation of the European Union and is the responsibility of one of the EU’s financial creatures, the European Central Bank.

Now one thing you can say about the European Union is that it knows how to make rules and bureaucratic red tape. And another thing you can say is that those rules get changed or ignored or even actively thwarted when they are inconvenient to any member state that has the power, negotiating skill, blackmail material or criminal intelligence to do so.

Everyone — even the Greek government — admits now that Greece used cooked books, under-the-table, off-the-books loans from Wall Street (thank you Sachs Goldman) and bald-faced lies to candy-coat the state of the Greek economy and government spending to gain entry to the Euro Zone in 2001.

Greece was only one member of the Euro Zone — but the worst offender — to abuse the access to easier credit that was one of the privileges of membership.

It didn’t take long for all parties concerned to realize that it was a practical — if not perceptual, PR-wise — error giving Greece a free pass to the Euro gravy train, but by then it was too late.

It wouldn’t have been too late if everybody stuck to the rules. The problem was Germany and France found themselves in a bit of a cash-flow squeeze in the mid-’00s and they — Papa France and Mama Germany — would have had serious difficulty meeting the on-the-books requirements to maintain membership in good standing in the Euro club.

That wouldn’t do, of course. The Euro existed because of France and Germany.

So the rules were changed. Loosened. Actually everybody just agreed to ignore them in frilly language.

And so Greece — and some of the other less well-endowed Euro members — escaped the tightening noose of fiscal responsibility. Germany and (to a far lesser extent) France got their financial difficulties straightened out and didn’t need the fixed dice anymore. But (again mixing metaphors) it was too late to close the barn door. The fiscal-responsibility horse had already left the stable.

Now the chickens are coming home to roost (more lame, mixed-up — one might say half-baked —  metaphors) and the southern half of the Euro Zone is ablaze in a bonfire of over-extended indebtedness.

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Greece’s goose is cooked (metaphor), Portugal and Ireland are bouncing around like popcorn in a hot pot (I made this one up, I think), Spain is on thin ice (ice and fire, I guess, metaphor-wise), but Italy is the elephant in the room that everyone in the room is worried will crush them when it falls (I’m done with these stupid metaphors).

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What’s going to happen next?

Well …

I don’t know.

If everyone played by the rules, I would have a pretty good shot at telling you.

But they don’t, so I can’t.

These Europeans (sorry to generalize, but that’s what happens when you join a Zone) are crazy and they defy — no, trample — logic. They’re fiddling while Rome burns. Literally — not a metaphor. Just wait for the riots in Rome when Italy catches fire.

So I can’t predict what’s going to happen — except that Greece is going down, kicked out of the Zone (within 18 months if not sooner), and in for some very tough times ahead. But maybe good times too, further down the road.

And — one way or another — Italy’s day of reckoning is coming, no matter how much shucking and jiving goes on in the short term. Italy’s sovereign debt load is unsupportable.

Look at this chart from Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine (Here’s a link to the English-language website).

DerSpiegelGraphic

Here’s a simpler comparison from the Wall Street Journal:

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It makes it fairly clear why Greece is in filch territory and Ireland should be (the British financial connection puts Ireland in a slightly different position), and why Italy is dancing on the razor’s edge.

Spain and Portugal are still in big trouble. Spain’s seemingly low sovereign debt ratio is misleading because it does not account for a huge amount of debt Spain’s cities and regional governments were allowed to run up independently of the national sovereign debt — to make up for financing Spain’s national government cut to put its own books in better light. It’s all still Spain’s debt.

Here’s a link to a very good analysis called After Eurogeddon by The Economist Intelligence Unit that spells out more clearly than I can what may happen in the coming days, months and years.

And here’s a bit of the Q&A that goes on in the Economist report:

5. Which countries would be most likely to stay in the euro, and which would be most likely to leave?

Firm predictions are tricky, but broadly a fracture between a strong northern “core” and the weaker “periphery” looks most likely. The process would, in our view, probably entail periphery countries breaking off individually to leave a “rump” of northern countries still within a currency union. Once one peripheral country (say, Greece) left, all the other vulnerable countries would probably follow. This means that Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain would leave the euro, although not necessarily immediately. Malta would probably leave, and Cyprus would have little choice but to exit as its banking system would be nearly wiped out by a Greek collapse. Up to ten countries could remain members of the euro: Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Estonia (the last three all being small, open economies like Malta and Cyprus, but with healthier fundamentals).

Look, all of the above sounds like I’m bashing Europe. Well … actually, I am.

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I’m a spendthrift who can squander money like a drunken European finance minister, so I shouldn’t be casting stones. And I love Europe — the quality of daily life is better there than in North America, in my opinion. But I may have to change my opinion when the effects of coming austerity programmes put the boot to European joie de vivre, culture, proximity and variety, great train system, wonderful cheap wine and fabulous, affordable food in neighbourhood bistros (and five, count ‘em five, different seas, no,  six, no, seven seas — but half of them are smaller than Georgian Bay).

Things will change in Europe — for better and worse.

But no matter how much things change, they will stay the same. Royally screwed up, for the foreseeable future.

I’ll be watching it unfold close up for a while, so I’ll let you know if the view is different from inside burning Europe than from outside.

No Free Lunch? No Free Market?

- October 18th, 2011

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Monopoly/Fun Guy versus Vendetta/Anonymous Guy — Separated at birth or just separate universes?

Life isn’t fair, trade isn’t fair, justice isn’t fair and the market system certainly isn’t fair.

That doesn’t mean most people want to give up on the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness, justice and some kind of fair, free market system. In fact most of us would like to have more of the above, not less.

The presence of far-left cadres and signs like “Abolish the monetary system” don’t define or even represent a substantial minority view of the vast, multi-layered, bubbling social organism that is the conglomeration of people who support (or at least have some inquisitive good will towards) the Occupy Wall Street movement.

As has been said many, many times already, there is no central agenda for this movement, no central leadership, no single unifying philosophy so far — except one.

The one thing everyone can pretty much agree on is that the system as it exists right now is broken (of course there is no consensus on how much or little breakage there is) and needs to be repaired.

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And that is why the Occupy Wall Street movement is a Good Thing — this sense of positive renewal and the sense that, whether it succeeds or not, the natural human tendencies to fairness and social responsibility can overcome — or at least counterbalance to some degree — the natural human tendencies to cynicism and greed.

As a species, we’ve only been around for 40,000 years or so. Surely we can eke out another century or two. The dinosaurs managed to hang around for more than a million years and they had pea brains. Big teeth but small brains.

(The odds of success aren’t high — never forget the aphorism “Organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy” — but it’s still an exercise worth pursuing and there is bound to be at least some shift in the balance of perspective, if not power. Maybe that in itself is a worthy measure of success.)

And that is why this general public sense that things have gone off track has coalesced around anger at the  huge blob of financial, economic and political control that falls under the collective corporate moniker “Wall Street.”

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Whether you live in Manhattan or Moosejaw or Milano or Montevideo or Mumbai, you know that “Wall Street” is working for “Wall Street” and its money managers, not for you or the people of the U.S.A. or Canada or Italia or Uruguay or India.

Most people can accept that without too much trouble or resentment. But what people can’t accept — and what is the real driving force behind the anger towards Wall Street — is that Wall Street has hijacked the institutions and mechanisms of democracy and changed the rules to benefit itself at the expense of everyone else.

Hannah-Tan

Apologies to Hannah Tan, but it’s a perspective on the Wall Street bull I like.

That anger isn’t a blanket denunciation of corporations or financial institutions — quite the reverse. People accomplish the most in this world when they work together to achieve a goal. I think that’s one definition of “corporate culture.” I think it’s also an applicable description of the Occupy Wall Street movement.I know honourable people who make a very good living in the corporate world but who are as offended as the St. James Park campers by well-heeled fraudsters and manipulators who cook the books, salt the mine and piss in the communal stewpot, to mix a few metaphors.

It’s got nothing to do with people working hard and making money. Good on ya. It’s got everything to do with people stealing money, pretending like they deserve it and sneering at the people they stole it from.

So the Occupy Wall Street movement really isn’t about seeking some kind of socialist “redistribution of wealth.” It’s OPPOSED to the redistribution of wealth that corporate Wall Street — the so-called 1% — engineered in its own favour over the past half century. The current backlash just wants to level the playing field a little bit. Not claw-backs but no more claw-overs.

Don’t forget that it was Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander of World War II and Republican President of the 1950s,  who warned us all in his presidential farewell address against the growing greed and self-serving power of the “military-industrial complex.”

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I like Ike: Looks a little like a bald David Letterman … but more relevant.

David-Letterman

The Eisenhower speech is a thing of beauty and courage and wisdom and foresight, perhaps even more relevant today than it was when he delivered it in January 1961. Here’s an online link to the written speech and audio track.

And here’s a link to the full televised speech on YouTube.

Here’s one passage to give you a taste:

“As we peer into society’s future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

“Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

And here’s the closing of the speech:

“We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

It all sounds so fanciful and naive today. It’s hard to remember that these words were written (at least co-written) and spoken by a man who saw closeup the worst the 20th Century had to offer mankind; a man who led millions of soldiers through a terrible, devastating war to defeat the evil of Nazism; a man who led the so-called Free World against the terror and tyranny of Soviet Stalinism for the better part of a decade; and a man who represented the Republican Party and the American social, political and economic establishment before the likes of Richard Nixon took over. (Ike, by the way, despised Nixon, the grasping vice-president foist upon him by political fixers.)

Wall Street is now more like the crooked casino that has fixed all the dice, cards and roulette wheels in its favour — and then fixed the laws to make us all play in that casino. You lose.

Put simply, Wall Street isn’t playing fair and is so used to not playing fair that it really doesn’t care anymore whether the chumps know it or not, as long as they keep anteing up.

The U.S. financial crisis that kicked off in late 2008 and the current Euro-zone financial crisis are two sides of the same coin and both are representative of the same problem: Yes, the economies of North America and Europe are in trouble, but the “crisis” in both cases is a self-created financial sector crisis — and the banks are being bailed out, not the economies.

The big banks, in both cases, knowingly engaged in dangerous, manipulative lending and investing practices — the dubious Ponzi scheme called the subprime mortgage market in the American case, and the reckless readiness of Northern European banks to buy bonds issued by Southern European countries obviously (to the duly diligent) unable to repay the bond amounts pledged to be redeemed in the future.

Hell, Wall Street’s Goldman Sachs even lent the Greek government billions under the table in 2001 so it could cook the books enough to gain entry to the Euro club. Where’s the censure? Where’s the penalty? Why aren’t Europe’s banks, now stuck with vastly devalued Greek bonds, hounding Goldman Sachs for their money instead of EU countries like Slovakia which had a GDP in 2010 of about $121 billion — only three times  the  revenue, for the entire nation, of Goldman Sachs in the same year — just one year after the American government gave Goldman Sachs the better part of a billion dollars in finacial support?

(Slovakia, by the way, sucked it up years ago and got its financial house in order. No wonder they were resistant to pressure from other EU countries to agree to back an almost limitless pool of Euros to prop up the profligate spending habits of much richer — but much broker — European countries.)

The whole financial sector — from investment banking to venture capitalism — is based on the concept of risk assessment and management. Supposedly the financial institution or corporation uses its expertise to judge the risks involved in any given investment and reaps the rewards or penalties according to the real outcome.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work and that’s the way — more or less, off and on — the system used to work in North America and Europe.

Not any more. For the past decade, big U.S. and European banks made windfall profits by investing in what were rightfully considered “risky” ventures and which thus produced higher returns than “safe” investments.

But when those “risky” investments blew up — subprime mortgages, bad European bonds, etc. — the banks that took those supposedly calculated risks weren’t willing to pay the real price for their reckless practices.

Instead they have gone to the political institutions and organizations in which they have invested heavily to bail them out. Which the U.S. government did in 2009 and which the European Union is going to do (or is it?) in the coming weeks.

According to an investigative team at Bloomberg News, various arms of  the U.S. government in 2009 lent, spent or guaranteed almost $13 TRILLION to prop up the American financial system.

This is (at least in the U.S. and Canada, which use the “short” system) 13 trillion: 13,000,000,000,000.

(If you put a million dollars in a box, it would take 13 million of those boxes to make $13 trillion. It also works out to roughly $40,000 for each man, woman and child in the U.S. — including all the illegal immigrants.)

Here’s a link to a video interview with one member of that Bloomberg investigative team.

When the Euro-zone bailout comes, don’t forget that the money involved is going to end up going to the French, Swiss, German, British and other European banks and financial cartels that don’t want to pay the real price for their greed-induced investment mistakes. (North American investors would suffer too, but the EU doesn’t care about them.)

The billions of Euros involved (a billion in the European “long” system is the same thing as a trillion in the North American “short” system) won’t create a single job or save a single home or small business from foreclosure or bankruptcy.

The government mantra in both cases is that the bailout packages must be put in place to prevent panic, chaos and complete uncontrolled collapse of the worldwide banking system and economy.

Attack-Street-Wall

A Wall Street protest in the 1920s — before the 1929 Crash, by the way.

If the aim was to protect the people, the governments could (in the case of Europe) or could have (in the case of the U.S.) guarantee(d) to protect the rights and property of individual investors while letting the supposedly “free market” take care of punishing the banks that put themselves in the crisis we are now told is our crisis. It would certainly be a lot cheaper than turning on the soylent green tap to the banks.

But it’s not really a free market, the game is rigged, the rules are made and changed by the people who pay the piper and call the tune, and the only free lunch is that eaten by the people who get to ding the taxpayer, either directly or corporately.

BS

Bernie Sanders — BS worth listening to

(According to the admirably independent and cranky  U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Bank of America got a $1 trillion bailout from the U.S. government in 2009, made a $4.4 billion profit in the 2009-10 financial year, paid no federal income tax and actually got a $1.9 billion tax refund for that same fiscal year. What’s wrong with this picture?)

As someone said recently, “I’ll believe that corporations are people (a reference to a hilarious Mitt Romney quote) when the state of Texas executes one.”

In fairness, I must say that the Canadian banking sector is not in the same position that U.S. banks were in two years ago or that European banks are currently in.

And to be even fairer, the Canadian banks themselves can’t claim credit for that. For the past two decades, Canadian banks have been pushing hard to have the rules governing their operations loosened to the same degree that restrictions on U.S. banks were loosened during the same period.

It was, the Canadian banks said, the only way they could compete on a level playing field with the might of the U.S. banking system.

I would love to know why and how the Chretien and Martin governments of the 1990s and early ’00s managed to stave off the influence of the big Canadian banks and forced them to live within the restrictive, fairly rational, ultimately life-saving rules that kept them solvent and secure through the 2008-09 U.S. banking crisis.

Of course, now the Canadian banks brag about how responsible and reliable they are because they weren’t allowed to drive off a cliff a decade ago.

Most people know all this stuff in their gut and that’s why the current protests have tapped into an underlying pool of understanding, if not total agreement. That majority is probably not the 99% the Occupy Wall Street folks like to talk about but perhaps close to the 90% I heard a couple of little kids chanting about in St. James Park the other day.

I really don’t expect any concrete immediate results to come out of the current round of protests and occupations but the overall effect is still profound and hopefully lasting.

The public discussion has changed tone and focus, people are engaged and seem to feel like they actually have a voice and input into a wider political process, the cheats and carpetbaggers have been put on notice that their actions have not gone unseen.

I also see and hear people slagging and mocking the protesters, but it seems more ritualistic than vitriolic. Granted, there is a lot to criticize and mock about the protests but there’s also a lot to appreciate and applaud.

As someone wiser than I said about Occupy Wall Street: It’s an inclusive movement, no one chooses who gets to participate — you have to take the good with the bad.

We all know there’s bad out there but, for me anyway , it’s a positive sign that we’re taking the good too.

Like every other movement in history, this one will fall apart, be corrupted or simply be absorbed into the political mainstream. But no matter what happens in the end, it has already had a real and (hopefully) positive effect — and at an incredibly rapid rate.

At the very least, a lot of people who were feeling alienated, disenfranchised and victimized can now say: “I stood up. I was there. I spoke and was heard. And I feel a little better about the world today.”

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Occupy Toronto: A Walk In The Park

- October 15th, 2011

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There’s one thing you can say about Occupy Toronto or Occupy A Park  Nowhere Near Bay Street  or whatever you want to call it — so far it’s been a heck of a lot more fun than Nuit Blanche was.

There were a lot more smiles on people’s faces, more spontaneity, more creativity, more costumes, more music, more festivity, more good old-fashioned joie de vivre. It was a people event, not a corporate event. There were no printed guidebooks.

The march along King Street and the occupation of St. James Park was a lot less expensive and a lot more real than Nuit Blanche.

Maybe Scotiabank should think about changing its sponsorship: No more Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, now it’s … Scotiabank Occupy Toronto …. or maybe … Scotiabank Anti-Capitalist Carnival … sponsored by  Scotiabank, The Bank That Sticks It To The Man.

I guess it’s not such a good fit. Never mind.

BailMEout

Saturday In The City was a good day, fractured, dyslexic, more than a little goofy — but its heart was in the right place and most everyone seemed to be excited about being part of An Important Event. It must have been important — there were so many TV cameras and microphones there, with people desperately trying to look cool while getting THEIR signs on camera.

Astronut

If the cops don’t do something stupid (like trying to eject the squatters too soon), the Occupation of St. James Park will quickly fade into obscurity. There may be a scruffy, ragged squatters camp in the park for months but I’m sure the congregation of St. James Cathedral will be happy to embrace them as a living, breathing, crapping example of the church’s relevance in modern society. (For the record, the St. James congregation has an excellent, long-standing, under-appreciated community outreach programme that  includes everything from providing homes for the homeless to street choirs, but this whole Occupy Toronto thing is a little sexier — for a while.) But the cops on the street were very cool Saturday.

bikecops

The only people who will be truly put out are those with regular window seats at Biagio Ristorante across the street — and I’m not too worried about them.

portapotties

Speaking of crapping, I was surprised how quickly the rows of portable toilets appeared on the scene. Methinks the decision to make St. James Park the tent city site wasn’t quite such a spontaneous, will-of-the-people decision as the un-organizers would have you believe. And it was fairly obvious there had been prior discussion — at some level — with Toronto Police about where the protest march was going.

A few other quick points in passing:

* I’m sure the cops in 52 Divsion, where the protest started, were very, very happy when the marchers crossed Yonge Street and it became apparent that the squatters camp was going to be on the turf of 51 Division to the east.

* Why, exactly, did the dis-organizers of the Occupation decide to set up camp the better part of a kilometre away from the heart of Toronto’s financial district?

* The funniest chant I heard all day was “The people united will never be defeated.” This protest represents a genuine sense of anger, disgust and rejection of the way the Lords of Wall Street have screwed up the world, the environment and the economy for personal greed and short-term corporate gain. But it doesn’t have one agenda — it’s got hundreds, it’s got as many agendas as people in the park on any given day — so the people will never really be united, ergo …

* I saw a few genuine nutbars — guys who usually parade their end-of-the-world proclamations at Yonge and Dundas: They weren’t even noticeable, just blended into the crowd. The guy wearing a sheet covered in environmental slogans who stood on King Street waving at cars and streetcars just seemed like Mr. Normal.

sheetman

* A drum circle of American (I think) women was the big hit of the afternoon, drawing far more attention, enthusiasm and interaction than any of the amateur speechifiers at the other corner of the park. A rant against flouride in drinking water just can’t compete with a good beat. (And there were some interesting ad-lib chants developed by the crowd to go with the drumming).

drumcircle

happyfaces

* Amid all the clamour to save the environment, a hillside garden of flowering plants was trampled by people trying to get a better look.

tramplegarden

* As they marched along King Street, protesters heckled a man on the sidewalk wearing a suit, white shirt and tie: “Take it off, man. Be real.” Actually he was being real — he was a waiter on his way to work. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the oppressor and the oppressed apart.

* My favourite chant of the day was: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” It has absolutely no relevance to the Canadian banking situation (only because Canadian banks weren’t allowed to go on the bender the American banks went on for the first decade of the 21st Century) but in the grand scheme of things it has a resonance.

KarlMarx

* My least favourite sign was one attributing the quote “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention” to Karl Marx. It’s a pretty good bumper sticker that everyone from Tea Partiers to Communists can go with. But, to the best of my knowledge, old Karl never said it so let that be a lesson to you, kids: Don’t attribute a quote if you’re too lazy to confirm its origin yourself.

karl-marx-in-shades

(NOTE: I don’t know the origin of this Photoshopped — I think — pic of Marx, so I may be as guilty as those people I’m nagging.)

° And here are a couple of other signs I liked:

WoodyOccupiesToronto

407sign

dreamBIG