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Archive for December, 2008

It was bad enough when the AIG execs treated themselves to a multi-day spa package right after they got their bailout funds.  Then, last month the CEOs of the Big 3 traipsed down to Washington in their private corporate jets to beg for their bailout.  In both incidents, someone was wise enough, brave enough, outraged enough to point out to them that their actions were not only a PR nightmare, but downright arrogant behavior, totally out of touch with reality.

But today’s announcement that the CEO of Merrill Lynch is angling for a $10 million bonus is too much.  This is the same company that recently reported billions of dollars in losses due to the greed inherent in all aspects of the sub-prime mortgage mess.  The same company that had to be rescued by Bank of America to avert a total collapse.  And John Thain figures he ought to be rewarded — to the tune of $10 million???  Talk about greed!

Open Letter to Mr. Thain:
Sir:

Please, tell us this is a joke.  You can’t possibly be serious!  Sure, you’ll argue, it happened on your predecessor’s watch.  You’ve only been on the job for a  year.  You engineered the sale to BofA, a sale that “saved” your company along with a bunch of jobs. Well, what about all those hard-working folks at Merrill Lynch who lost their jobs thanks to your company’s lousy decisions?  What sort of bonus will they be getting?  Let’s see, last time I was unemployed, benefits were minimum wage.  COBRA payments left me with the unenviable choice between health care and, oh, rent, food, utilities, gasoline to go to interviews after sending out gazillions of resumes.  Head hunters pushing each other aside to get a chance to court me for their next great job opportunity?  NOT!  Companies calling me, vying for a chance to take advantage of my skills?  NOT! 

Rather than seek an obscenely high bonus at this point in time, what you should be doing is offering to work for $1 a year, making darn sure that the practices and policies that led to Merrill’s collapse are relegated to that part of corporate memory that’s entitled, “THINGS NEVER, EVER TO TRY AGAIN!”  Once the company has resumed a business plan that focuses more on long-term profitability than the next quarterly report, and the results of that plan have been demonstrated,  THEN you’ll have earned the right to ask for a bonus. 

In the meantime, I suggest that you spend weekends volunteering at a soup kitchen or a shelter for families who’ve been kicked out of their newly-foreclosed rental home or lost their job in an industry affected when the mortgage bubble burst. These are the real victims of the sub-prime mess.  They are the people who were trying to be financially responsible.  They weren’t part of the problem, but they’re paying the price for the greed of others.  It just might do you a world of good to get outside of your gated mansion and off your yacht or your private jet to see the consequences of your greed.

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It seems that Congress is inching towards some sort of rescue plan for the US automakers.  The current thinking is that there will be some sort of bridge loan to tide them over until the next Congress can come up with a more permanent plan.  In light of the announcement that the US economy has shed 1.25 million jobs in the past three months, the possibility of another 2 to 3 million Americans thrown out of work is simply not an option.  The unemployment rate, when one includes those workers who are so discouraged that they’ve given up looking and those who are cobbling together one or more part time jobs in lieu of a single full-time one, is approaching 12%.  We’re currently half way to the unemployment levels of the Great Depression, with no way of knowing how many more Americans’ jobs will disappear as the economy continues to contract.  Keeping the US auto industry going, even if it’s on life support, is better for us all than to bear the financial and social costs of another 2-3 million jobs disappearing.

But, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on when Congress pushed through the $700 billion bailout of the financial sector with few caveats on how the money should be spent, other than to get credit moving again.  In contrast, the auto makers are being required to present detailed plans and proposals on how they’ll spend their taxpayer funds — funds that are to be in the form of loan guarantees and capital infusions rather than simply opening the doors to the US Treasury.  Could class differences be at work?  After all, we’re hearing that the Wall Street bankers shower before work, while the auto workers shower when they get home. 

The Wall Street bailout was supposed to loosen the credit markets so that money could begin flowing again.  But the banks are reluctant to lend except to people and institutions whose credit is impeccable.  And the more the economy sinks, the more people lose their jobs, the more they can’t meet expenses, the less credit worthy they become.  The same is true for businesses, including banks.  And so the spiral continues. 

We’re hearing a lot about how the auto workers’ wages and benefits are the reason the US auto industry is flagging.  Some want to blame the entire mess on the UAW — get rid of the union, they say, and all would be fine.  But wages and benefits represent only 10% of the cost of a vehicle.  And the non-union auto workers in the plants in the south earn only a few dollars an hour less than their union bretheren.   Additionally, nobody has mentioned the fact that many US autos are actually assembled in Mexico or Canada.  Are those UAW jobs at UAW wages, even in Mexico?

Union-busting has become the darling of the conservatives.  The past eight years have seen a great deal of pressure to keep wages steady, while touting the productivity of American workers.  Yet, the cost of everything from groceries to energy to health care to education has climbed much faster than inflation.   Could part of the problem be that most people simply can’t afford a new car?  Would reducing the economic pressure on the middle class by ensuring that workers received a living wage have prevented much of the problem in the US auto industry?

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Detroit.  The industry has spent billions of dollars fighting every improvement that has come down the pike — from rear view mirrors, to seatbelts, to catalytic converters, to improved fuel efficiency.  Perhaps if they’d taken a more cooperative approach, they wouldn’t be in the state they are.  But they are where they are.  And we can’t afford to lose millions more jobs.  So, my hope is that Congress, either this one or the next, will offer them the funds (with plenty of strings) to preserve those jobs and provide us with smarter, more fuel-efficient cars.

And, if it’s not too late, I hope that the new Congress will revise the TARP (that $700 billion dollars that were targeted at the financial sector) to provide some real oversight.  There are a lot of savings to be gained in requiring those CEO’s to join the $1 a year club and to eliminate their stock options and bonuses until and unless they become responsible corporate citizens. 

There is talk of a new stimulus package, with some staggering numbers attached.  The previous stimulous that put a few hundred dollars into people’s pockets went largely to pay bills and pay down credit card balances.  I hope that the next one will be focused on creating jobs.  That money will be circulated throughout the economy.  And we know that the social costs of high unemployment rates are also high — more drug and alcohol abuse as people try to escape their emotional pain, higher divorce rates, more homelessness, more crime, poorer health, more domestic violence.

Back in the 1960s, after the urban riots, the Kerner Commission found that the underlying cause of the urban unrest was un- and under-employment.  We know that there was unrest during the Great Depression and that many of the New Deal programs were begun in part to keep the country from turning to the political extremes.  We also know that most states and cities are hurting financially and that there is an impulse to cut back on the safety net programs that will be under increased demand just as their funding is cut.

Our infrastructure in this country is in a dire state of disrepair.  Bridges are deteriorating and collapsing, and if you’ve driven the LA freeway system lately, you know that the pavement is cracking and crumbling.  The same is true for county and local roads.  Our electric grid is overstressed, causing transformers to fail during periods of high demand, and these failures too often lead to widespread outages affecting people hundreds of miles from the point of initial failure.  Our Internet backbone is behind those in other countries, and we are becoming increasingly dependent on broadband for communication, business transactions, and national security.  In short, there is need for massive investment in infrastructure if we are to remain competitive in the global economy.  This investment in our future would provide millions of jobs, requiring varying kinds of skills, as we move to a greener economy.

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Initially I had thought to cover the entire period from the beginning of the Crusades to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I in Part 4, but that would have been much too long for a single post.  And the Crusades are an important period.  We continue to experience its consequences.

As usual, I welcome comments, corrections, and additions as well as other interpretations.  After all, history is written by people, and as such reflects a point of view.  I’ve tried in the earlier sections to be more of a chronicler, with some historiography thrown in, but as we approach the modern era, more of my own perspective will necessarily creep in.

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New installment

Just a quick note to let you know that Part 3 of the Middle East Tutorial is up for your enjoyment.  As usual, I welcome comments.

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