Saturday, October 29, 2005

Conundral Equinox

Rain like tears had been falling for the better part of the week, but not on this crisp MacIntosh of an autumn evening. Evidently, the raindrops had agreed to a moratorium, only to be supplanted by a willful wind, whose intemperate and directionless gusts threatened to outen the flickering bags of light arrayed along the perimeter wall. Edgy sentinels or conscripts congregated in two small gaggles, but for the diminutive called group. One group stood at the intersection, while a slightly larger one stood in the shadows just beyond where the wall lost interest in an encirclement of fading gravestones, obsolete and receding into the yielding Earth below. Some headstones had been adorned with regimental markers or placards indicating participation in one or another war: your guess is at least as good as mine, if you're wondering what the spectres made of the goings-on.

Devotion, be it spiritual or martial, readily blends into one amorphous emotional goo, a loose amalgam of poorly delineated sensations to which we feel an obligation to respond. A line of anonymous people stood in the cool darkness, tiny flames licking and writhing within handheld lanterns.

My view of this ceremony was slightly orthogonal to the folks with whom I talked, as we shuffled around, shielding our uncertain and feeble commemoration from the swirling indifferent breeze. Passing motorists waved in solidarity, thanks in part to the earnest souls with their candles, partly due to the hand-drawn signs which explained what we were doing there. I tend to come down on one side or the other of any primum motile, but for one night only, I was actually acting out of a general sense of futility. For centuries, we had cultivated a decidedly non-militaristic stance: for weeks, we had kept an eye on the count of soldiers killed, intending this candlelight vigil to acknowledge their sacrifice, once their number reached 2,000.

I have no regrets about the memorial nature of the act, itself, but neither do I think that it will dissuade anyone from putting themselves in harms way. It just strikes me as an oxymoron, a festive orgy in the name of upholding virginity. Like sex, war typically involves more than one consensual partner, and if we offer no real love of war, we are equally diluted in our protestations against military acts. What message is sent if we say, "war is the wrong choice", then aggrandize the honor and valor of the combatants as people? Please do not read any irony or sarcasm into this line of questioning- in our search for purpose as individuals, killing our fellow man may be a plausible activity, especially if people maintain a schizophrenic system of punishments and rewards for its participants. Memorial day crystallizes this ironic behaviour, but during any season of conflict like the one we're in now, each day brings new opportunities to exalt armed conflict, despite any professed aversions to war as a solution to things.

It seems to me that war will always be an option, if not a political preference, so long as we fail to honor veterans by failing to grasp its essential futility, by seeking recruits or conscripts rather than less sanguinary forms of political expression or national will. We involve ourselves militarily, then enshrine the fact through memorial statements about the dead or wounded. Something's lost in the process, for the living. We confer honors to survivors, and try to acknowledge their personal sacrifices. But they fail to demand a reckoning, and future generations are left with the misapprehension that a special wisdom will prevent subsequent escalations from exacting a pointless toll in blood. Our real attempts to acknowledge the humanity sacrificed (if it's even possible to suspend it, for a few tours of duty) are seen as overt approval of the process, instead of expressions of personal compassion.

Surprisingly, most of our makeshift lamps remained lit for the whole hour or so of the vigil, even with the shifting winds. The vigil itself was a thing of beauty, neither a mockery of the sacrifices, nor identifiable as either a protest against, or affirmation of political support for the war. I suppose that passers-by could apply whatever cause they liked, as they drove by in the darkness. The Marines might say, "Kill 'em all, and let God sort it out...", but our motto is more like, "Baffle 'em all, while God's sorting it out."

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Just In Time For Holiday Shopping

Well, now that it's officially law, I feel I can comment on yet another piece of legislation, without fear that I may unfairly inflame political passions - whether you prefer an "Aye" or "Nay" vote on the law itself. I must say that the changes in personal bankruptcy law are placed against a rather fascinating backdrop of freely accessible easy credit lines, weak or neutral discretionary purchasing trends. Surely, this must be a conscientious alert, an effort to caution against excess during the upcoming holiday seasonal shopping. Oddly, I don't recall any parallel legislation that would curb the extension of credit to marginal customers in the first place, or enforce demand-side restraint for customers who may already be in over their heads (hence, likely to clog federal courts with bankruptcy petitions. Apparently, many who read the writing on the wall have started early, by filing proceedings ahead of the October 17 enactment date.)

I'm not sure how qualified this government is to preach fiscal restraint, so I have to look at the larger picture and see if there are other circumstances which might create a sense of urgency where none was apparent before. The picture is a bit foggy to me, so I probably don't have all of the details straight yet.

Evidentally, there have always been acceptable losses in the money business-bad credit accounts due to changes in marital status, job loss, etc, or personal bankruptcy. These are all bad things, but not hard to absorb if you charge usurious interest on balances carried by millions of other cardholders. Two things that could affect this serene cash cow come to mind- either a rise in personal bankruptcies (above the previously accceptable levels) could be underway, or, the financial underpinnings which effectively subsidized these business costs are no longer reliably supporting them. Interest rates could factor into this, but from what the equities markets are saying, banks are making record profits, and have been throughout the previous five years. Basically, that says that there's a "healthy discrepancy" between what they pay for money, and what their customers are charged. That's all well and good, not a bit unusual where governments attempt to kick-start moribund domestic economic engines. We could claim expertise in this model, based on our track record over the past five years. In effect, we've long since flooded the engine with fuel, but to everyone's surprise, it hasn't shown a commensurate increase in performance. People who either upgraded to a larger or second home may experience something akin to pulling a forty-footer up a steep hill, with a VW Beetle. The problem wasn't one of inadequate fuel- a bigger or smaller fuel tank won't improve the torque or overall performance of your beetle.

I'm not thrilled with the new law. Bankruptcy doesn't sound like much of a picnic to me, whatever the initial reasons might have been. It isn't clear to me how this fixes anything. I suppose that it might indirectly restore indentured servitude, but the way I see it, you can't get blood from a stone anyway, if you squeeze it forever. I don't see too many people going loose on personal fiscal responsibility, even by my metrics. If anything, a lot of people for whom "volatile food and energy" costs cannot be excluded from spending decisions, are voting with their wallets, no matter how rosy the economy might be proclaimed to be. Harsh though it might seem, I would actually rather see these one-sided legislative bandaids counterbalanced by some supply-side restraints, and a bit of legislative restraint as well. The link shows who voted which way on the new law.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Blessed Blindness

Down near the bottom of my figurative dial lies CSPAN, nestled between two "Premium" channels. Further up the line lie Bloomberg and MSNBC. To get from one to another broadcast, one must either leapfrog or, pain threshold permitting, traverse the intervening throw-away channels. On a good day, one could contrast the sepulchral pronouncements of the "Majesty of Moolah", Allen Greenspan, in one of his visits to the House or the Senate Finance committees, then flip over to the see how the stock and bond markets are reacting to what he is, isn't, or might be saying. It's a shame he's retiring: None of the other Fed governors has anything like his charisma and mastery of the all-humbling, totally elliptic Greenspeak. Hardened politicos and captains of industry, seasoned veterans of all forms of monetary legerdemaine in their own rights, all must kneel down in eager supplication at the Master's voice.

I mentioned Greenspeak, which certainly be prominent in the Master's legacy. It is peculiar mix of dissimulation, guesswork, and fiscal minutiae, properly served up in a deep, rumbling baritone voice, at a deliberate and unflappable pace. (Sorry folks, but tenors, altos or sopranos need not audition as understudies, at least, not if you're considering Greenspeak as your lingua franca). An avuncular, professorial bearing provides just the right touch of reassurance that whatever the message, the words will be as mother's milk to the unwashed and princes alike.

As with anything held precious, Greenspeak derives its authority and power by being indefatigably protected from the slings and barbs of the real world. It makes no difference whether the audience includes government, world economists or close family members, the rule is ironclad and immutable: No direct question will ever be answered directly. Indirect answers or comments can never be given, except that they defy logical parsing or relationship to the issue in question. Balancing this mandate for opacity is the need to foster an unbridled demand (and, by inference, supply for) greater elaboration. Obviously, any such prolonged commentary must obey the same restrictions (?) as the original answer. I'd probably quake with admiration at the sight of one of his SFC performances, if the spectacle of flummoxed senators (many of whom are already world-class prevaricators themselves) desperately searching for some useful shards in the stream of Greenspeak wasn't such a troubling vision itself.

I'll admit that my earliest exposures to this peculiar icon had me checking my shoes for something stuck to the soles, but over time, it comes to me that there's a widening schism that satisfies any need for insulation from the hoi polloi, which keeps the government and the Fed at arm's length. It's simple, if somewhat macabre- the economy is a separate entity from other governance issues (including social conditions, if you believe that they factor into the thinking of Senators, Representatives, or the Executive branch). There's clearly a question of which- the populace or the economy- is the host, and which is the parasitic tumor. It's quite possible that, in this wealthy nation, 50 million people may live at or below poverty levels, and in the same breath, the economy could be considered in recovery. Depending on one's perspective, elected officials get into office by popular vote, and may be responsible for the general well-being of all of the citizens. The Federal Reserve governors are appointed, not elected, and have the somewhat narrower resposibility for upkeep of the economy through monetary policy- not for the general population. So, when the talking heads get together and start swapping lies, they're probably telling the truth in this parallel and (to all appearances) unrelated universe. Just turn off the sound, and watch for their lips to start moving, or else, go about your regularly scheduled relationship with real world problems. Just remember that, whether you're rich or poor, you're paying these folks for whatever results we get. You can leave the sound bites muted and just observe and draw your own conclusions.