Monday, March 23, 2009

Rarefied Air – Clouded Judgement....

"Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet. I understood on some dim, detached level that the sweep of earth beneath my feet was a spectacular sight. I'd been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Mount Everest, I just couldn't summon the energy to care."

Thus begins Jonathon Krakauer's best seller, Into Thin Air. The thrill of achieving a lifetime goal - to stand on the rooftop of the world – is dramatically diminished by the overwhelming fatigue and lack of oxygen one finds at such a height.

Sometimes I think that Washington, D.C. is like Everest. People arrive there and soon find themselves disoriented, out of touch, talking the nonsense that comes from the oxygen deprivation found in the rarefied atmosphere of the capital.

I'm firmly bound to earth, living as I do in the Midwest. And as someone who lived in Chicago for 20 years, when I see a Goldman Sachs guy like Hank Paulson implement a plan to spread the taxpayers' wealth out in ways that enrich the Goldman Sachs guys and other Wall Street peers, I smell a smell I don't much like. Something rotten. Like a rat.

When Tim Geithner talks about eliminating toxic assets from the economy, I simply have no idea what he's talking about. What I hear him say is that the banks - who loaded up their balance sheets with poison, apparently, when it was profitable to do so – now have the opportunity to unload the poison onto the taxpayers and private investors who knowingly would purchase toxic assets.

With this latest plan, apparently the feds are creating a market for toxicity that doesn't now exist. And me - in my Midwestern frame of mind - wonder who are the private sector purchasers brave enough to wade into this pool of sludge? How will investors profit on something that has crippled the banks?

What return can we get from investing in poison?

And when really smart people in government say they don't believe people outside of Washington are talking about the AIG bonuses these days, I wonder what the hell are they breathing, drinking, eating, swallowing in that foggy bottom town by the Potomoc.

People ARE talking about AIG bonuses, just as they talked about the Merrill Lynch bonuses. Pretty much everyone I talk to outside of the Beltway and Wall Street all thought a "bonus" was a reward for excellence. And they HEARD elected officials say that they'd worked hard to ensure this money didn't go to enrich the executives who screwed up.

But now they SEE millions and billions of dollars paid out as bonuses to people whose performance took the economy to the brink. They see enrichment of the few at a great cost to many. Yes, the dollar amount of the bonuses is not even a drop in the trillion dollar bailout bucket we're using to fix the problem.

We all know that.

But it's the principle of it all that has incited the "populist outrage."

When AIG contracts that uphold the payment of astronomical bonuses to a few terrible business executives are determined to be impossible to break, but the union contracts used to protect auto workers must be renegotiated before the disbursement of TARP funds, all of us sitting around our kitchen tables brooding about our future realize that Obama was wrong back in 2004, when he reminded us that there aren't blue states or red states - that we all lived in the one beautifully unified United States of America.

The simple truth, however, is that we don't live in THE United States of America. It's not ONE COUNTRY, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. The United States of America today is a house divided. There are two states in our country today - not 50 - and they're not divided by the bright, primary colors of red and blue.

The two states of America are the privileged power elite - and the rest of us. The rarified air in Washington enables our leaders to prattle on and pretend that they want to protect the rest of us. But their actions seem contrary to their words. They seem impaired by the lack of oxygen one finds on the top of the world.

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