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Trump, the Toxic Legacy of the Financial Crisis

Today, the Lost Angeles TIMES published my oped as part of a a package on the first anniversary to Trump's election. Space was limited, so I tho...

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Trump, the Toxic Legacy of the Financial Crisis


Sunday November 05, 2017

Today, the Lost Angeles TIMES published my oped as part of a a package on the first anniversary to Trump's election. Space was limited, so I thought I'd put up the more fleshed out version here:


Ten years have passed since the beginning of the great financial meltdown, and perhaps the most toxic legacy of that crisis was the election of Donald Trump as President. I’ll get to that linkage in a moment, but even before Trump’s election there were signs that the crisis was part of a worrisome trajectory. The near meltdown fits within a recurring cycle in American capitalism in which generational forgetting and greed conspire to foster credit bubbles, which inevitably burst, ruining millions, but leaving intact the system and perverse incentives that in turn set the stage for the next turn of the cycle. In recent decades this cycle seems to have a period of eight to ten years – something to keep in mind on this tenth anniversary – but the wildly improbable Trump presidency suggests that wobbles in this cycle are becoming more extreme and spreading beyond the economic to the political. If we do not pay heed to the lessons of the financial crisis, the next phase of this cycle could be the last for America as a functioning democracy.
 
What are those lessons? The biggest, hiding in plain sight, is that the crisis is not over. The U.S. remains in what future economic historians will call a depression. We’ve had ten years of subtrend growth, and even today, the economy remains so fragile that the Federal Reserve is hesitant to raise interest rates from their unprecedented emergency levels. Taking per capita GDP (the most meaningful measure since it adjusts for population growth) from its previous peak in the fourth quarter of 2007, the annual growth rate over the past ten years has been a limp 0.50% per year. It seems that every year since the meltdown economic forecasters have predicted that the economy will break out of its doldrums, only to be disappointed and make the same bright prediction for the following year.
 
A principal reason for the subpar performance has been slack demand – people simply don’t have much money to spend. Trends in automation, globalization, and financial engineering have left the median American household little better off than it was 50 years ago despite the fact that participation by women in the work for has increased by more than 50%.
 
The average non-supervisory worker has actually lost a little ground since 1967, earning $743 a week as of August, versus an inflation-adjusted $792 a week fifty years ago. While the median family’s income has virtually flatlined, in that same interval U.S. real GDP nearly quadrupled.  
 
Consider events of the past few decades. Inflation decimated worker savings in the 1970s, and then the end of the Cold War unleashed forces that suppressed their wages. Outsourcing exposed American workers to competition from a global work force; unions lost their bargaining power; automation steadily worked its way up from blue collar to white collar functions, and the more recent explosion of ecommerce threatens the tattered remains of the bricks and mortar economy, eliminating not just retail jobs but the construction, real estate, and service functions that supported stores and malls.
 
Then 2008 hit, which threw nine million people out of work, put more than 3 million households in default on their mortgages, and ruined the credit of many millions more. Since then, many have gone back to work, but at lower paying jobs with fewer benefits, and no job security. Millions more simply gave up, and, as Alan Krueger of Princeton recently argued, many of those turned to opiods.
 
Against this harsh reality, the average family turns on the news and hears that the economy is at full employment, and that banks are again paying out fat bonuses. They also hear that some of these bonuses were the reward for pursuing predatory practices (such as the fake accounts and unnecessary auto insurance Wells Fargo forced on an estimated 3.5 million of its poorer customers). No wonder people are angry. 

The Trump phenomenon revealed that significant numbers ordinary people sense they are being screwed by the establishment. Millions have concluded that both political parties serve a shadowy nexus of financial and corporate interests. This nexus seems all the more sinister because it has no official status or organization -- which makes it fertile soil for noxious conspiracy theories. The “system” needs no organization because it is a commonly shared set of ideas about free markets, deregulation, the frictionless movement of money, and the role of central banks. To paraphrase the late Charles Reich, the elite don’t run the machine, they tend it.
 
The power of this nexus is undeniable. One act that set the stage for the financial crisis was the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, which had previously prevented banks from risking depositor money in less conservative investments. Banks had been pushing for this for years, and in 1999 Bill Clinton, a Democrat signed its demise.
 
Unfettered, the big banks and other financial institutions plunged into the mortgage business, getting fees for placing loans with unqualified borrowers (remember NINJA loans?), and then stuffing these into securitizations to get them off their books as quickly as possible. For those who worried about the consequences, the revolting mantra of the day was “You won’t be here; I won’t be here.” In those days, volume was the key to riches, and so the lending ran amok, at least until the unqualified borrowers started to default and the entire pyramid collapsed.
 
The durability of this shared set of ideas has been astonishing. Despite the ‘08 near death experience, the paradigm of “getting government out of commerce” survived, just as it has survived the Savings and Loans crisis in the 1980s, when deregulation encouraged owners of these conservative institutions to take on excessive leverage. Now, ten years after deregulation and excessive leverage ruined millions, the Trump administration is again deregulating madly, and risk is creeping back into the financial system as investors embrace risk in the search for returns.
 
If you didn’t tell Trump voters that Thomas Piketty’s thesis was in spirit a Marxist analysis, most would probably agree with his  argument  that in the struggle between capital and labor, capital has emerged the clear winner. Ordinary people see it everyday in their own diminished prospects while the elite grab ever more of the pie. They, correctly, didn’t think Hillary would do anything to change the system, so they bet on a snake oil salesman who lied that he could. Instead, as we’ve seen, he’s busily handing the keys to Wall Street corporations, the wealthy and himself.
 
Trump’s first priority after inauguration, for instance, was to repeal Obamacare. The motivation behind this effort became clear as the GOP-controlled House’s original plan called for the repeal of surtaxes on the wealthy. Since by design, the plan had to be revenue neutral, such cuts could only be achieved by raising taxes on the less wealthy (and by cutting Medicare benefits, which make healthcare affordable for the Trump base). Now, Trump’s big push is to lower corporate tax rates. Over ten years, each percentage point of corporate tax rate reduction costs the Treasury an estimated $100 billion in receipts. If  Trump gets his way, this shortfall would run into the trillions, and the only ways to pay for that would be to raise taxes on individuals, or to cut government spending, over 60% of which currently goes to the poor and middle class in the form of benefits.
 
So, how will these passed-by workers react when they realize Trump is a false prophet? And how will they react when the next crisis hits, and their hard times get even harder? Some will go down the rabbit hole of far right conspiracy theories, while others will decide to take to the barricades to bring down capitalism from the left. In the past in the U.S. the center has held, but can we be sure that will be the case the next time around, particularly if desperation drives more people to the extremes and the center shrinks even further? Years ago, the late diamond magnate Harry Oppenheimer explained his progressive labor policies by saying, “If they don’t eat, we can’t sleep.” The elites of today would do well to heed this warning.
 

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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