If that story sounds familiar, it should -- it's "The Hen and the Golden Eggs" by Aesop. If it feels familiar, maybe that's because we seem to be living through a time when the ancient wisdom is being ignored and we are making the same mistake as the old Cottager and his wife.
If the vast American economy -- the fruit of our collective labor and ingenuity -- is the golden egg that assuredly brings us gain, day by day, then are the crimes against it akin to ripping its marrow out in a fit of greed? Crimes like rating visibly bogus investments as AAA or handing out home loans to people incapable of ever paying them back or allowing speculators to drive up the price of gas or hooking people on credit cards at usurious rates. Then there's the spectacle of the very architects of this house of cards running, flanked by their army of mercenary lobbyists, to the federal government for a bailout when the inevitable collapse comes -- money that ultimately comes from the very taxpayers victimized by those reckless policies. And lately, the Federal Reserve has obliged. The goose-gutters get to keep their extra homes in Aspen and Aruba, and America sinks deeper into debt.
Yeah, we're getting fleeced.
And these are the same people who love to talk about the inherent wisdom of the free market. But how is the wisdom of the market supposed to kick in if poorly managed and bankrupt firms are never allowed to fail? The idea that America in 2008 practices free-market economics is a fairy tale. Of course we're told all these institutions are simply too large to be allowed to go under. That's probably correct, but it also keeps the pressure building -- is a greater collapse just being pushed out a couple years, or will these masters of the financial universe manage to walk the tightrope to economic safety? If these are the same people who invented the subprime mortgage loan, I'm not so confident.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & o how bad can it get? Can the American economy be killed like a goose? It seems crazy, but under similar circumstances we came very close to finding out during the Great Depression, which was prompted in large part by too much debt. And Great Britain lost its empire in the 1950s while it was drowning in debt. Today, America is buried under the tallest mountain of IOUs ever amassed in all of human history.
We'll just have to see how that works out.
At least, that's the attitude our presidential candidates seem to be taking toward the issue. Sure, they're talking vaguely about the need to cut the deficit (as they propose new spending), but for so pressing an issue, the silence is deafening.
John McCain's demurral makes sense. He's probably just hoping that nobody notices his 25-years' worth of fingerprints all over the very deregulations that have landed us in this pickle jar. No wonder he's pinning up Paris and Britney in his TV ads.
But Barack Obama's relative silence is puzzling. Why not take on the crazy policies and practices that have pushed millions of Americans out of their homes? Maybe he doesn't want to pick a fight with Wall Street or come off too stridently in voters' eyes.
Both these guys are running for office, so they're naturally cautious, but what about the American people? "Why No Outrage?" as Wall Street gadfly James Grant asked in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
"Have the stewards of other people's money not made a hash of high finance?" Grant asks. "Did they not enrich themselves in boom times, only to pass the cup to us, the taxpayers, in the bust? Where is the people's wrath?"
Theories abound: Perhaps after these past eight years, Americans have used up all their outrage. Perhaps the whole mess is so hopelessly arcane that nobody actually understands it. Perhaps humans are doomed to a wretched state in which even wisdom first articulated in the 6th century B.C. has to be painfully relearned by every generation. Or perhaps Americans are politely waiting until Nov. 4 to pass judgment.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hile most of our corporations operate fairly, I can't help but think large pillars of our system have become rotten over these past few decades. Somehow we have gone from enabling American citizens to enjoy the highest standard of living anywhere to trying to suck as much money out of every American consumer as possible. Has capitalism gone cancerous, attacking the very body that supports it?
As old Aesop well knew, when money is involved we make some bad decisions. Franklin Roosevelt understood this basic truth, too, and his New Deal rescued a nation brought to the brink of collapse by just that kind of greed.
I'd like to see a presidential candidate champion the idea of real reform -- not the kind of platitudes that pass as reform every four years. Roosevelt brought some Biblical righteousness to the fight and wasn't afraid to assign blame on the "Practices of the unscrupulous money changers [who] stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men..."
Too bad, but those are not the kind of words we're likely to hear in this election cycle.