Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Yes, 2008 was historic

By Donald Kaul

I’m sure there have been worse years than 2008; I just can’t think of one right now.

Bad enough that the economy fell into a hole the bottom of which we have not yet seen, it has also become apparent that we are at the mercy of thieves and swindlers.

Ted Stevens of Alaska, then the longest serving Republican Senator, was found guilty of illegally accepting favors (a doubling of his house) from a contractor who did business with the government. Really, a two-bit bribe for someone charged with moving hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars around. It makes you wonder what we didn’t find out about.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, once considered an up-and-coming star in the Democratic Party, was caught on tape talking about auctioning a U. S. Senate seat to the highest bidder.

Bernard Madoff, a genuine certified lion of Wall Street who thrilled hundreds of rich investors with the returns he produced on the money they gave him, was found to be a miserable fraud, as empty of substance as the Wizard of Oz and a very bad man besides. His worst offense was the damage done to charities that trusted their funds to him, money that was supposed to provide for the needy in many cases. But almost as serious was the stoking of the fires of anti-Semitism that his crookedness inspired, reinforcing the ugly stereotype of the dishonest, money-grubbing Jew.

It was a year when we saw legislators with platinum-plated government health insurance upbraid auto executives for giving workers gold-plated health plans.

When we saw investment bankers and other Wall Street brigands dipping into the federal treasury for billions of dollars to stave off collapse, all the while paying themselves handsome bonuses for their good work.

It was a year in which a billion became the new million. As recently as September our political candidates were still talking in terms of millions, as though that were real money. If a thing cost $100 million, well, that was too expensive. We couldn’t afford it. Then the economy went south and overnight the term “millions” became so yesterday. When the auto companies came to Washington looking for cash, they didn’t ask for $100 million to tide them over until payday---$35 billion was the number---and they weren’t the only ones. No problem it seemed could be addressed for less than $30 billion, not even as a stopgap.

Having agreed with the consigning of perhaps a trillion dollars or more to do nothing more than apply a tourniquet to our hemorrhaging economy, President-elect Obama has announced he’ll pour hundreds of billions more into the task of jump-starting it.

Will any of it work? No one really knows. It doesn’t seem right though, does it? Excessive borrowing got us into this mess in the first place; now we expect excessive borrowing will get us out.

They’re making money in the old-fashioned way these days; they print it. (Many of the geniuses counseling Obama, by the way, are the same geniuses who didn’t see the train coming until it hit them.)

All this borrowing means we’re saddling our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren with a mountainous debt that they will have to repay someday; the theory being that it’s better to do that than leave them with a bombed-out, burned up economy where no one can earn a living.

For now we’re left wondering whether we can count on our jobs, our pensions, our retirement accounts, our health insurance or even the ability of our children to get an education and/or job.

We had learned to take those things for granted but we can’t anymore and it’s damned scary. The threads of trust that bound us together as a society have been broken, one by one.

President Obama’s biggest job will be to reweave that web of trust along with its correlatives, confidence and optimism.

If he can do that, he’s going up on Mt. Rushmore.

(This is distributed by Minuteman Media)

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