Sunday, March 30, 2008

Praise Be . . . !

Praise be . . . !

Thomas Friedman, a prominent, nationally syndicated commentator chose Easter Sunday for reaffirming his conservative beliefs. One of those beliefs is that government does not make things better. The less government, the better we are of. Especially, government should stay away from the economy and let the free market work its own miracles.

Only a bold person would dare to say such a thing only a week after the government bailed out Bear Stearns, one of the largest US investment banks because it was threatening to go bankrupt. In order to prevent a run on the banks and a worsening of the economic recession, the government spent a large amount of tax money to save the bank – and, of course, its stockholders.

This rescue is only one among many actions the US government has taken in recent months in order to shore up the faltering economy. The government has made millions available to support failing economic institutions such as banks and mortgage companies. Each tax payer will, once the tax return has been filed, receive the royal sum of $ 300.00 or $ 600.00 from Uncle Sam. The cost of that largesse is $40 Billion.

Why is the economy in recession? Some people think that the current problems are the result of insufficient government oversight over financial markets. Having failed to prevent crises caused by excessive speculation, the government is now trying to dampen the effects of their previous failure.

Nor is this the first time that insufficient government supervision of the financial system has created enormous suffering in our country. Before the Great Depression the free market ideology of today's conservatives was widely accepted. The stock market and the banks were free to do anything they wanted. Not surprisingly their speculation brought about the economic collapse of the Great Depression and an unemployment rate of 25% that lasted until the advent of World War II.

Ever since, financial transactions have been supervised by the government and that has saved us from some disasters although, as we can see today, not from all of them.

In our economy individual businesses compete for market share, for instance, by lowering their prices or by making investments that are slightly more risky than those made by competitors. If one competitor takes a risk, everyone has to follow suit or be left behind. Competition pushes every one into cutting corners. Airlines may try to save money on airplane maintenance; the banks may try to get ahead by the betting on riskier investments. If that process is unchecked it is only a question of time before truly unsafe products come to market -- think of the toys contaminated with lead, or dog food that poisons your pet--both imported from China to lower prices.

The government can stop competition from harming consumers, or the entire system, by forbidding certain sorts of risks. It alone can do that by imposing the same rules on every business and thereby putting limits on what competitors can do. Without such limitations the free market will hurt customers and the entire country.

These are not the only examples of government actions approved of even by many conservatives. (There has not been much criticism from conservatives of the Bear Stearns bailout.) When there are floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes, everyone expects the government to help out the victims Many have complained that the government has not done enough to help out the reconstruction of New Orleans. Few, if any, voices assert that we should just leave it to the free market to repair the damage done by a Hurricane Katrina.

Its a fairy-tale that the so-called free market, left to its own devices by the government would provide undreamt of freedom and prosperity for all. Experience contradicts that story; it is an article of religious faith--something believed even though experience decisively contradicts it. There is always room for argument about specific government interventions but to assert point-blank that our economy would be better off if the government kept its hands off, is to completely ignore the experience of the last 80 years. The conservative faith in the free market is just that--a faith, not supported by experience.

Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus is therefore the best day of the year for reasserting the conservative principles. The story of the Resurrection is not supported by experience. Human beings, once dead, remain dead. Belief in the Resurrection is an act of faith; it goes against all our experience. Christian Churches recognize that.

Would that our conservatives where as honest as the Christian Churches. The belief in the free market similarly contravenes all experience. It, too, is an act of faith. It is time that our conservative commentators came clean and admitted that.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Another side to the Spitzer story

Like any other story, Spitzer's has many sides.

Here is some information about the politics of this story.

Did you wonder why it was only Spitzer whose patronizing a super expensive escort service hit the papers in a big way? Was he their only customer? Is there only one expensive escort service?

Here is Greg Palast's answer to this question. Palast is an extraordinary investigative reporter.

For his story go to

What we can learn from Eliot Spitzer

How could he do that? everyone asks and we have been regaled with a wide range of speculations:

some men get a sexual charge out of doing something dangerous,

some men are addicted to sex, they just can't get enough,

some powerful people think that they can do anything they want, that they are too important not to do things even if they are illegal,

some men, especially powerful ones, like paying for sex because it makes them the more powerful one in the relationship,

men--all men--think only with what they have between their legs; you won't find many women resorting to purveyors of paid sex.

And on and on. There is probably a good deal of truth in some of these explanations, but most of them cannot be verified unless you know Eliot Spitzer a lot better than the people who only saw him on television.

But one important aspect of this whole affair has not, as far as I know, been mentioned. Eliot Spitzer is not alone. Various reporters mentioned a long list of politicians whose political careers came to an end when they were caught having illegal and, what is more, extra-marital sex.

But the same is true of a lot of athletes. I have no doubt but that it is also true of a lot of hot-shot business men although they still have more privacy.

What do all these men have in common? They are intensely ambitious, ruthless competitors and the only thing that counts for them is winning. They care about winning more than about anything else in the world. Without that you don't get to be governor of New York, or a world-famous athlete, or the CEO of a large and successful company.

What do you and I care about: the family, our kids, doing a good job, keeping up our house and our car, being a good friend, being respected by the people who know you, being an all round good person. Maybe you care about being squared away with God and the Church, maybe that does not matter to you. But being a decent person does. What you and I care about are other people and our soul.

But then you and I are not intensely ambitious and competitive. We care about other things not only about us--me and you--winning, being the best, the most powerful, the most famous, or the richest. But for the fierce competitors their own victory, their own power, their own fame, and money is what comes first. In order to compete you need to care more about yourself than about others. Being governor, or a star athlete is more important than wife and kids. If you miss a campaign rally because your kid is sick, or your wife has breast cancer, you are not a good competitor. Winning has to come first.

But if that is who you are, your sexual satisfaction is more important than your family's feeling. What you want is not closeness with a loved and trusted and familiar person, but hot sex with a stranger because all people are, deep down, strangers to you.

The indomitable competitors have to be profoundly selfish, self-involved. That's how you win. A lot of winners are not nice persons. You would not want your daughter or son to be such winners because you want them to be good persons.

Americans are not only big into sports, but they admire winners. And then when the winners turn out to be like Eliot Spitzer, or to be guilty of cruelty to animals, or of taking growth enhancing drugs and then lying about it, or being fiercely against homosexuals and then get caught soliciting sex in a men's room--everyone is all surprised.

But it should not be a surprise if you only think about it. To be a big time winner you need to be a ruthless and relentless competitor. Nothing must deflect you from your goal of winning--not love, not family, certainly not morals.

Winning is not everything. And the next time your get bent out of shape because your six-year old's team lost a game in the Little League, remember Eliot Spitzer.