Sunday, April 24, 2011

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You . . .

null “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” With these words, John F. Kennedy inspired a generation of Americans to look beyond themselves and help others. It inspired young middle class whites to brave racist mobs in order to help rural blacks in the south exercise their constitutional right to vote. The Peace Corps grew out of this sense of service, as did Head Start and a host of other programs designed to help people help themselves out of poverty and despair. It was the spirit that helped put a man on the moon.

This injunction, though, presupposed that those in government would act in that same spirit; that they would truly be ‘servants of the people.’ It also assumed that those in positions of power would act in the best interests of the country, not look to line their own pockets.

The history of our country, since the ‘days of Camelot’ has been a decidedly mixed bag. There have been those who have given their all without regard to personal position or riches; but all too often, there have been those who have taken the low road.

During the Reagan years, there were the officials on the National Security Council who decided that acts of Congress, laws passed by the peoples’ representatives, did not apply to them. They decided that they knew best, and acted sub rosa in clear violation of the law, giving us the Iran-Contra scandal. We were inflicted with Watergate and the White House tapes, laying bare for all to see just how selfish and petty people in senior positions can be.

During the Vietnam War, an obsession with body count, and an inability (or refusal) to understand the enemy we fought, led to our own body count of over 50,000 of America’s young men and women, in a cause that we never understood, and which didn’t get the support of the American people. Furthermore, it led to a general public distrust of government that we still suffer from today.

It’s not only in government that we see examples of people in power ignoring Kennedy’s injunction. The recent Ponzi scheme, that involved hundreds of the famous, rich, and powerful, and resulted in the loss of billions, was but another example of greed in its most naked form; greed and a blatant disregard for others.

It is almost impossible to read the paper or watch the news and not see another example of a corporate executive being paid literally millions for bankrupting his company and leaving customers, stockholders, and employees holding the bag. The Enron scandal was but one of many.

We as individuals, consumers and investors, are not without guilt. The collapse of the real estate financial market, brought about by the proliferation of high-risk, non-traditional mortgages; while it might have been created by unscrupulous mortgage brokers and lenders, it was a result of the inability of individuals to delay gratification. People who insisted on owning houses that were valued way higher than their incomes could justify; who wanted to live in a million dollar residence on an income of under $60,000 per year; were willing markets – or marks – for brokers willing to cut corners and say anything to make a sale.

We are on the brink of an economic collapse to rival the crash of 1929, with foreclosures, layoffs and job loss at all time highs. The administration and Congress are talking bailouts and stimulus packages, tax cuts and assistance with mortgages. One would hope we have learned something from this disaster – but I am not holding my breath. Those who don’t learn and understand history, and pay attention to it, are condemned to repeat it. Remember the Savings and Loan scandals? The Chrysler bailout? What about the real estate collapse of about two decades ago? It seems to be a case of making the same mistakes over and over to see if we can make the perfect mistake.

This has been a wake-up call and I for one am fervently hoping we will finally wake up.