Last night, I watched the first two parts of the excellent Frontline‘s four-part series on the financial crisis. No one does it like Frontline, where they tirelessly lay out the facts and put them together in a way that is comprehensible and enlightening. Last night was no exception even for someone like me, who is not exactly clever when it comes to money and math.
Frontline traced the origins of the crisis to a meeting in Florida in the early 1990s where young financial “geniuses” got together to figure out how financial institutions could avoid risk and make more money. From there, the law of unintended consequences, combined with greed and stupidity, kicked in, and some very powerful people came mighty close to wrecking the world’s economy and causing a world-wide depression.
It is beyond the scope of this post (and perhaps this writer) to lay out exactly how the financial crisis happened. I would encourage readers to watch this special and learn for themselves. I’m even seriously considering buying this documentary so that I can watch it and learn at my own slow pace.
But I do have a couple of thoughts. First, the people and firms responsible for this misery have not paid restitution. Just the reverse. They are as rich and as powerful as ever, and they continue to stack the deck, via laws and regulations, in their favor. In my opinion, all the financial institutions involved should have been forced to pay a financial crisis tax, large enough to do some good, to in turn help states deal with the shortfalls that came as a result of this crisis. I also think the individuals leading these firms needed to make restitution, not by going to jail, but instead by paying hefty—and I mean hefty—fines that could also go to alleviating some of the harm they caused. Hours and hours of community service would also have been appropriate. None of this will happen, but it should have, and it galls me that it hasn’t.
Second, and almost as galling, is that we are all part of this horrible system. There is no way we can opt out. Even the most avid, green back-to-lander is somewhat dependent on the money that comes from Wall Street. It might not be directly, although it is the rare family that will not rely on pensions or benefits funded from investments. But the dependence on Wall Street is there all the same.
For example, let’s say we have Joe and Josephine, alternative farmers, who grow, make, and barter pretty much everything they need. Such people are rare, but they do exist. (Often in a farming family, one person works outside the home to bring in a steady income and health insurance, and the other person tends the farm.) To continue with our mythical couple: The money Joe and Josephine need for operating expenses comes from the products they sell, and it really seems as though Joe and Josephine should be able to thumb their noses at Wall Street and the rest of the world. Yet, Joe and Josephine are still a part of the system because they are dependent on the rest of us, whose jobs, at various levels, depend on the financial system. Without us to buy their products, there would be no Farmers Joe and Josephine.
Perhaps I’m being cynical. Maybe by buying local and second hand, by reusing and recycling, we can at least slow down the system and do some good. I don’t know. What I do know is that it is both frustrating and scary that the shadowy men and women of the financial world should have so much power to ruin so many lives, not just in our country but also around the world.
I wish the Occupy Movement the best of luck. They are going up against formidable and dangerous opponents.