Inside Job ....the Movie

Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Matt damonMatt Damon wants to interview me. ME! He'll autograph one of his pictures, and (blush) he'll probably want one of my own. After all, he's reached the top of his field and I've reached the top of mine.
 
 But wait! Matt Damon is interviewer for a movie called Inside Job. Inside Job
About root causes of the 2008 financial collapse! [the one replaying in Europe at this writing] Aren't you worried he may ask embarrassing questions?
 
Nah! He's just a dumb actor. What does he know? I'll razzle-dazzle him. He may be good at pretending to be a successful person, but I'm the real thing! He'll be thrilled to meet me. Not a problem. I'll generously grant him a few minutes of my time.
 
But it turns out that Mr. Damon's not so dumb after all. Plus he's a quick study. Plus he's been coached by the best. It's just my guess, but I think the filmmaker used him as bait, to lure in unsuspecting hotshots. You never see his face, just like in the old days when you never saw a newspersons's face....before they immodestly decided that they themselves were also news and so had to have their mugs on screen. But with Mr. Damon, it's back to the old ways...you never see him, you only hear his voice.
 
And if Glenn Hubbard [chief economic adviser to the Bush administration, and Dean of Columbia Business School] fell for the Damon bait, I've no doubt he's lived to regret it! “This is not a deposition, sir,” the cornered Hubbard huffs, getting hot under Damon's unrelenting questions. “I was polite enough to give you time, foolishly, I now see. But you have three more minutes. Give it your best shot!”
 
I knew he was toast the moment he said it! If only I could have warned him! Words like that don't work. I know, because years ago I used those exact same words on Mrs. Sheepandgoats when she was ragging on about some shortcomings she imagined I had. It's amazing what a woman can do in three minutes!
 
But Mr. Hubbard is not the film's villain. Not by any stretch. He has a role, but it's only a tiny one. He's in a cozy “you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours” society, that's all, which nets him a good chunk of change. ($100,000 to testify in defense of a couple hedge fund managers, who were nonetheless convicted of fraud) But that's very small potatoes compared to the massive misdoings that Inside Job lays bare. All the really big fish were smart enough to lay low...they weren't taken in by any 'oh boy!....lets talk to Matt Damon!' ploy. They have enough dough to buy and sell a hundred Matt Damons.
 
With patient clarity, Inside Job lays out what led up to financial disaster in 2008. “This crisis was not an accident,” the film asserts. “It was caused by an out-of-control industry. Since the 1980s, the rise of the U.S. financial sector has led to a series of increasingly severe financial crises. Each crisis has caused more damage, while the industry has made more and more money.”
 
Back in the day, the film explains, if you wanted to buy a house, you approached a bank for a loan. That's what I did. And then for the next 'what seemed a lifetime' you'd pay off your mortgage. The bank was careful loaning you money, because it was their money. They wouldn't loan it if they thought you might not pay it back. Isn't that simple? It had been that way forever.
 
But starting in the 1980's investment banks went public, raising millions from the stock market, and came up with new ideas to make money. Since Americans had never defaulted on their mortgages....I mean, who wants to lose their home?...even in times of crisis, it was the absolute last expense one would renege on......why not buy those mortgages from whoever wrote them, then sell them to investors in the stock market, reaping a fat commission on the way? Of course, no investor's going to buy a single mortgage, but if you bundled them up several thousand at a time, then it became something people would invest in! Brilliant! Profitable! A win-win! Well.....maybe not that last adjective. Does anyone see the flaw?
 
See, the mortgage writer held that mortgage for only a short time. He sold it to an investment bank straight away, who also held it only a short time. The bank put it on the stock market for individual investors to purchase. So, in time, it occurred to these two middlemen that they needn't worry too much about whether the mortgage could be repaid, so long as they could stick it to some investor further down the line, who was removed from the original translation and might just assume it was sound investment! Especially if outside authorities....call them rating agencies....like Moody's, Fitch, and S&P....assured them that those investments were absolute rock-solid. Rating agencies did just that! After all, they drew their fees from those very same investment banks bundling the mortgages, and money blinds people. If they ever came to have misgivings as the mortgage quality deteriorated, they chose to look the other way. Such investments enjoyed the highest ratings right up until they crashed.
 
And crash they did. Enticed by fat commissions, and over the span of two decades, it became easier and easier to get a mortgage. People could do it with limited income, sometimes even with no income, since it got so that oftentimes nobody bothered to check if the applicant was creditworthy or not. Home prices began rising so quickly that people would buy one, even if they couldn't quite afford it, with the notion that they could flip it for a big profit in just a few months!
 
Here's Alan Sloan, senior editor of Fortune Magazine, interviewed by Inside Job:
 
“A friend of mine, who, who's involved in a company that has a big financial presence, said: Well, it's about time you learned about subprime mortgages. So he set up a session with his trading desk and me; and, and a techie, who, who did all this – gets very excited; runs to his computer; pulls up, in about three seconds, this Goldman Sachs issue of securities. It was a complete disaster. Borrowers had borrowed, on average, 99.3 percent of the price of the house. Which means they have no money in the house. If anything goes wrong, they're gonna walk away from the mortgage. This is not a loan you'd really make, right? You've gotta be crazy. But somehow, you took 8,000 of these loans; and by the time the guys were done at Goldman Sachs and the rating agencies, two-thirds of the loans were rated AAA, which meant they were rated as safe as government securities. It's, it's utterly mad.”
 
They were called CDOs, “collateralized debt obligations.”
 
Didn't I write here back in 2008 about a couple of “douchebags” (not my word) who made a fortune writing “toxic” mortgages like this? Eventually, word got out that, contrary to the theorists, that people were defaulting in droves, and the entire market crashed.
 
But there's more. By 2006, the big investment banks realized the CDOs they sold were risky and might fail, so they began buying insurance, called credit default swaps, (CDS) from AIG Insurance, so that they would reap a profit if the CDO's really did go bust. Obviously, they stopped selling those toxic CDOs, right? Nope. All the while they continued to market CDOs as a high-quality investment! Meanwhile, they continued to buy CDSs till it dawned on them that AIG itself might go bust (which did happen). So they insured against even that! Is it any wonder I launched my ill-fated service presentation about “big-time bankers?”
 
But wait! Could all this possibly happen under the watchful eye of regulators? Again and again, Inside Job reveals how regulators saw all this developing....and did nothing. One such regulator, a former Fed banker, is convulsed with the worse case of the stammers I've ever seen trying to explain his role to Matt Damon:
 
“So, uh, again, I, I don't know the details, in terms of, of, uh, of, um – uh, in fact, I, I just don't – I, I – eh, eh, whatever information he provide, I'm not sure exactly, I, eh, uh – it's, it's actually, to be honest with you, I can't remember the, the, this kind of discussion. But certainly, uh, there, there were issues that were, uh, uh, coming up.”
 
 
 
There's not just bad guys in the film. There's good guys too. And one of the good guys is someone we've long thought was a bad guy, after initially thinking him a good one! Elliot Spitzer! SpitzerI have a whole blog category about him, which I was about to phase out, until this movie hit the screens. He was New York's governor for a short time, the state's potential saviour (and does it ever need one). Almost single-handedly, as New York's attorney general, he took on these defrauders himself. He had to do it almost single-handedly, because nobody else would co-operate. Says he in the film: “The regulators didn't do their job. They, they had the power to do every case that I made when I was state attorney general. They just didn't want to.” It arguably was not even Spitzer's business, or at least not his mainline business, for Wall Street dealings came first under the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange commission. (SEC) But they so glaringly neglected the job, that Elliot Spitzer stepped in.
 
“There is a sensibility that you don't use people's – uh, personal vices in the context of Wall Street cases, necessarily, to get them to flip. I think maybe it's, after the cataclysms that we've been through, maybe people will reevaluate that. I'm, I'm not the one to pass judgment on that right now.”
 
There's also Kristin Davis, Kristin daviswho ran a prostitution ring from her high rise apartment. She details the “personal vices” of her thousands of Wall St clients, so that we see Mr. Spitzer's carrying on was by no means unusual for the culture he was operating in. But he was the “good guy,” and I suppose you do expect the good guys to be good. Ms Davis also emerges as a good guy, since she spills the beans on the collasol debauchery of the Street.
 
 
The top investment bank execs all steered clear of Matt Damon, correctly smelling a rat, but they couldn't really avoid Congress. The film provides footage of these big-time bankers being grilled by various legislators. Watch em squirm! It's lots of fun. But don't kid yourself. They only squirm to a point. And a little squirming can be endured if you're nonetheless walking off with a personal profit of millions, even billions of dollars.
 
Another aspect of them film which has a curious effect: Whenever you see a picture of some people and one of them is the United States President, and the camera begins to zoom in, you know it's going to zoom in on the President, until presently the other nobodies fall of the frame. Inside Job zooms in on the other guys, all high-powered banking types who, the inference is clear, are really running the show. Here is footage of Ronald Reagan and his Treasury Secretary, former Morgan Stanley CEO Donald Regan, and it is Regan who is the focus. There is Bill Clinton side by side with his Secretary Treasurer, then Goldman Sachs CEO Robert Rubin, and it is Rubin who takes the spotlight. Ditto for George W Bush and later Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson; the same for Barack Obama and Tim Geithner, former President of the New York Federal Reserve branch. Who isn't reminded of Amschel Rothschild's words almost two centuries ago: "Let me issue and control a nation's money and I care not who makes its laws." Democrats in power? Republicans? Doesn't matter. “It's a Wall Street government,” says Robert Gnaizda, former director of the Greenlining Institute, with no reform in sight.
 
 
 
Does the movie really end with a call to arms?
 
“They [the investment bankers] will tell us that we need them, and that what they do is too complicated for us to understand. They will tell us it won't happen again. They will spend billions fighting reform. It won't be easy. But some things are worth fighting for,” the film concludes.
 
…...............................................
 
Fast forward three years later. The investment firm MF Global has just failed, in exactly the same fashion as Lehman, Bear Sterns, etc, demonstrating no one's learned anything since 2008. The movement Occupy Wall Street spreads from it's Manhattan home base to cities the world over, over a thousand at last count.
 
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The movement began only two months ago.
 
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"Because Then You Will Find the Culprits"

In late 2008, trashing bankers was the way to go, what with the huge economic breakdown....a breakdown which has lately rekindled, this time with Europe the flashpoint. I have no great love for bankers, so I hopped aboard.

“Hi. We're speaking today about a group of people no one likes,” I began my house-to-house presentation. “Bankers.”

The householder replied: “I'm a banker.”

“No, no, no, I'm not talking about you...” I backpedaled. “I mean big-time bankers!”

“I'm a big-time banker,” she pursued. “So are all my family.” For crying out loud! What are the chances? Believe me, there was nothing about the street to suggest big-time bankers lived there. Frankly, I still think she was pulling my leg, but you won't have to stretch your mind too far to picture that the call sort of fizzled.

My companion was mortified. He still brings it up to suggest how embarrassed I must have been. But I wasn't. Light and semi-flippant is the way I like to go; that way you can readily retract if you see you've missed your mark. It's exactly the right tone to cut through apathy, or cynicism, or dullness, and we have a lot of that here in the United States. Plus, if you find you've come across a sincere person, you can immediately modify your tone. This won't work everywhere; it might not even work in most places, but in the U.S.A, at least where I live, it's just right, at least for me. It doesn't work for Mrs. Sheepandgoats, but then, her approach doesn't work for me. We all have to make the most of the personalities we're stuck with.

I was aiming that day to speak of security, specifically financial security, since it didn't seem to exist just then. Remember, the whole world was on the edge, said the Economist, a condition which is being revisited as I write, except blasé people say “been there, done that.” and pay much less attention than three years prior. But I was trying to nudge folks into discussion of Isaiah 65:21-23:

And they will certainly build houses and have occupancy; and they will certainly plant vineyards and eat [their] fruitage. They will not build and someone else have occupancy; they will not plant and someone else do the eating. For like the days of a tree will the days of my people be; and the work of their own hands my chosen ones will use to the full. They will not toil for nothing, nor will they bring to birth for disturbance....

Many people sense today that they are building and planting so that someone else can live the good life. Protesters are camping out right now on Wall Street and major U.S. cities, angry about the top 1% of the population controlling 99% of the wealth. President Obama is preaching for all he is worth about creating jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Is it an ill omen for him that even Steve Jobs just died? So it seemed that folks might be receptive to this Bible promise recorded in Isaiah, that under God's Kingdom rule, they will see good for their hard work, rather than finding they just dig themselves deeper into a hole while someone else sees good for it.

Recall three years ago that the banks had just been “bailed out.” They'd been given massive cash transfers, funded by the taxpayers, and taxpayers weren't happy about it. Would anyone bail them out of their money troubles? Or would those banks, now that they had been saved, go easy on the small fry indebted to them? Not a bit of it! Instead, they began tossing people from their homes, as the housing market collapsed, jobs withered, and folks fell far behind in their mortgages. Yes, they booted them out right and left until someone uncovered a law that said you actually had to read documents you were signing when someone's home was at stake. Banks weren’t doing that. They were robo-signing! The courts said they could no longer carry on like that. So they had to hire people to actually read the stuff, which slowed them down a bit. But only temporarily.

Doesn't this just make your blood boil! Doesn't it call to mind Matt 18:23-34?

…..the kingdom of the heavens has become like a man, a king, that wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. When he started to settle them, there was brought in a man who owed him ten thousand talents [60,000,000 denarii]. But because he did not have the means to pay [it] back, his master ordered him and his wife and his children and all the things he had to be sold and payment to be made. Therefore the slave fell down and began to do obeisance to him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay back everything to you.’ Moved to pity at this, the master of that slave let him off and canceled his debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves that was owing him a hundred denarii; and, grabbing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back whatever you owe.’ Therefore his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay you back.’ However, he was not willing, but went off and had him thrown into prison until he should pay back what was owing. When, therefore, his fellow slaves saw the things that had happened, they became very much grieved, and they went and made clear to their master all the things that had happened. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘Wicked slave, I canceled all that debt for you, when you entreated me. Ought you not, in turn, to have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I also had mercy on you?’

As one senator (Ron Paul) pointed out, since the total bank bailouts eventually came to $17,000 per person, with no discernable economic benefit, you might have just given the money directly to the individual Americans. The results could hardly have turned out worse, and might well have turned out better. Debts would have been paid down, new purchases made, small businesses started. So that's why I led off with my “bankers” presentation. It's not something I would ordinary do.

By the way, whatever became of Winged Migration Man? Was he hurt by the collapse? It hit retired folks especially hard. WMM used to comment here a lot, and I cherished his comments. They were witty, they never agreed with me, yet they were always respectful. But his last one showed discouragement. He wrote: (first comment on this post)

Tom, Sheep and Goats,

The present debacle ….has devastated many an unsuspecting individual who had been led to believe his house would continue to appreciate and his 401K was as safe and as dependable as the tide, and unfortunately it is not over yet. This hard working individual who was probably reared to believe that the system of Free Enterprise and Capitalism would allow him to achieve what most folks felt was the American dream.....I do trust that those of you out there that read this blog know that I hope you all will recover from this financial downturn that has developed.

I know, I know. In these days of massive instability, a person can do much worse than merely suffer financial loss, no matter how large. Still, this crisis hurt good, decent people. I hope he made out okay.

So I was all excited to hear of an upcoming film Inside Job Inside Jobwhich was to expose the fraudsters behind that 2008 collapse. When it hit the theaters here in Rochester, I did what I never ever ever do. I went to see it without waiting for the DVD release, or at the very least, for it to hit the cheap theaters! But amazingly, it only played here for a week, and it was gone! I had to go to Buffalo to see it, and even there it played only in a couple second-run movie houses. This seemed so odd to me that I theorized conspiracies had to be at work! ME! Tom Sheepandgoats, who never goes in for that kind of thinking! Not that I don't think that people aren't low enough to conspire; they're easily low enough. I just don't think they're smart enough. You have to be able to keep your stories straight for any conspiracy to remain hidden.

The film no one saw went on to win that year's academy award for best documentary. Director Charles Ferguson, accepting his prize, delivered the only serious line that entire star-studded silly night: “Forgive me, I must start by pointing out that three years after a horrific financial crisis caused by massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong!” The movie's doing well in rentals, in contrast to its initial debut, and I highly recommend it. In fact, I'll review it soon. And in the spirit of movies.....here's a teaser preview:

CHARLES FERGUSON: Why do you think there isn't a more systematic investigation being undertaken?

NOURIEL ROUBINI (professor, NYU Business School): Because then you will find the culprits.

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Tom Irregardless and Me               No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

 

 


Dancing on the Edge

Sunday, July 24, 2011

If you stumble and just barely avert falling over the precipice, ought you thereafter assume it's okay to dance upon the spot? Yet that exactly what leaders are doing right now with the world's economic system.

The precipice was just two and a half years ago. Lest anyone think I exaggerate, here's the cover of the Economist that week*:

2011 7 24 world on the edge 
 

 
*not to be confused with 'What the the #@%! is Next'

The fear at the edge was palpable. Did George Bush really fret aloud that “this sucker may go down!”? Panicked into doing something....anything...fast, Congress passed legislation infusing massive cash transfers into critical financial institutions, “bailing them out.” Essentially, the government printed more money, to the tune of $17,000 per American, (cumulative amount of all bailouts) using new public debt, the “promise to pay,” as the asset backing it. And after some breathless days.....ah....safety at last! It seemed to work, after a fashion.

But two and a half years later, the edge is back! Another related crisis, with consequences just as dire if its bungled. Come August 2nd, the United States....the world's largest borrower....will default on its debts unless Congress authorizes a higher borrowing limit. They've done this scores of times in the past, but this time they're stuck. How to do it? Cut spending (a lot), increase taxes (a lot), or kick the can down the road to deal with later? Always, the 3rd option has won out, but maybe not this time.

At present, 41 cents of every dollar spent is borrowed money, and credit rating agencies say they'll downgrade the U.S. credit rating in the absence of more financial discipline. They can't be bombed into submission, so it's a mixture of options 1 and 2, and nobody can agree on just what that mixture should be. So Congress and the President have been squabbling and stonewalling down to the present....dancing upon the edge...terms like 'financial Armeggedon' are bandied about in the event they do not succeed. Even to come near the date without an agreement is said to freak out the markets, which have always assumed that somehow these characters will get their act together.

But Friday (July 22nd) there was 'meltdown' in the negotiations and PBS commentators Mark Shields and David Brooks, never at a loss for words about anything, were dumbfounded:

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, what you have just seen is the rupture of the summit.....  And the time is now short. I mean, the grand deal appears to be in shambles. And now the urgency is to raise the debt-ceiling and get it done.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, shambles, a complete meltdown, apparently. I have never seen a presidential press conference with a president so angry in public.....if those [terms of a proposed agreement] are real, then I think it was a pretty good deal. But the president's tone of being the only adult in Washington, everyone else is a child, that he's going to summon people to the White House as if they are kindergartners, well, even if you agree with them on the substance, it's kind of hard to go along with someone who is insulting you all the time.

MARK SHIELDS:
.....And now we're down to the point of, you know, look, we're staring right down the barrel of Aug. 2.

…..JIM LEHRER: Is it conceivable that they will not make a deal, or they will make it in such a way that the government of the United States of America will actually go into default?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I had been going in thinking there was a 10 or 20 percent chance of that. Now I would move that up to 30 or so.......

MARK SHIELDS: I still -- I'm just -- my native optimism just insists that these -- in the final analysis, they're not partisans, they're grownups, they're Americans, and they know how far how grave the consequences are.

JIM LEHRER: But then why are they acting the way they're acting?

MARK SHIELDS: It's -- it -- Jim, it's a question that I don't have the answer for.

 (Greatly abbreviated. Click above for the full transcript)

 

Of course, the public seethes over this and threatens to vote everyone out come next election. But surely that's a tired response. For people haven't been betrayed by their leaders....who are only doing just what one would expect them to do given the dramatically opposed constituencies they represent. This is the classic “iron mixed with clay” of Daniel 2:42-43. They're honorable people, for the most part, doing their best. Looking out for themselves at the same time, no doubt, but who doesn't? Rather, people have been betrayed by an idea....namely, that human rule, in this case government “by the people,”....works, and can solve our ever-deepening woes.

Oh yeah, Tom Sheepandgoats, oh yeah!? Well, if you don't think 'government by the people' works, tell me of some government you like better. Exactly.......I can't. They all have strengths. They all have weaknesses. And in each case, the former is outweighed by the latter. It simply goes to show that human rule itself is the problem, and that “we need the Kingdom”.... that heavenly Kingdom which the Bible speaks of and which Jehovah's Witnesses publicize.

But human self-rule is an article of faith unrivaled among notions today. Nobody likes to throw dirt at it. So instead they throw dirt at the persons involved, thinking they are the problem, and not the system itself. Yet the Congressmen themselves feel betrayed. They give their all to a system, believing as strongly as any religionist that that system will deliver, only to retire disillusioned, though always replaced by someone new who hasn't yet learned the lesson. Said Senator John Danforth, back in 1981: "I have never seen more Senators express discontent with their jobs....I think the major cause is that, deep down in our hearts, we have been accomplices in doing something terrible and unforgivable to our wonderful country. Deep down in our heart, we know that we have given our children a legacy of bankruptcy. We have defrauded our country to get ourselves elected."

 

Partly accounting for government truculence on economic matters is that past solutions have not proven effective. Accordingly, Senator Ron Paul grilled Fed Chief Ben Bernanke on the $17K per American ($5.1 trillion total) given to bail out the banks. Since there's been no discernible economic benefit, he mused, the Fed could have simply given each and every American $17,000.

Consumer spending would have increased, surely. And consumers could catch up on their loans, or even pay them off, so the bank would hardly suffer. And some might pool their allotments together, forming new enterprises and creating new jobs. Instead, the banks were given the $5.1 trillion directly, for their liquidity, while still holding ordinary persons on the hook for the full amount of whatever they might owe.

But Paul rushed his questions and cut off Bernanke's answers. Why? Senate sub-committee rules: he's only allotted 5 minutes! Right! And if it was the end of the world he was speaking about, he'd only have two minutes! But if it was the brand of coffee to be served during breaks, for that maybe he'd have 60 minutes or more. Shades of Parkinson's Law, if ever there existed any.


I tell you, this is absolutely amazing. And it comes right down to the wire. Perhaps the 30% chance of disaster will not occur just now, and will be postponed a bit. But the answer, God's Kingdom, is being steadily proclaimed unitedly the world over. And yet, because it's proclaimed by humble, ordinary people, it's largely ignored. After all, how many Jehovah's Witnesses have gone to Harvard? How many of them are wealthy and influential?

“For the speech about the torture stake [cross] is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is God’s power. For it is written: “I will make the wisdom of the wise [men] perish, and the intelligence of the intellectual [men] I will shove aside.” Where is the wise man? Where the scribe? Where the debater of this system of things? Did not God make the wisdom of the world foolish? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not get to know God, God saw good through the foolishness of what is preached to save those believing.”    Rom 1:18-21

You know, the wisdom of the world does look foolish these days. More foolish all the time. And more disheartening for those who trust in it.

 


The Marcion Trap

So here I am, battling villains who insist the name Jehovah has no place in the New Testament, assisted by allies who nobly and quite properly come to my defense, when what should land in my comment inbox but a dissertation about Marcion. Who in the world is he? And what does he have to do with anything?

“In all likely-hood, Marcion actually lived in 40 AD not 140 and was the apostle John Mark, writer of both the gospel of Mark and gospel of John, as well as parts of Matthew and Luke,” says Rey, who offers the comment, “which were originally one gospel but were separated into four under the reign of Commodus because Commodus fancied himself to be a god who sits between the four winds. The first figure in church history to proclaim there are four gospel is Ireneaus, who works in the palace of Commodus, and who argues that there must be four gospels because there are four winds. Very suspicious.”

Very suspicious, indeed. But suspicious, from my point of view, because it has absolutely nothing to do with anything we'd discussed thus far (which often is grounds for my rejecting a comment, but I let it go this time).

Now, anyone familiar with the parent organization behind Jehovah's Witnesses knows that their enthusiasm for the internet is not boundless. In fact, it barely exists at all. One of the reservations they have about cyberspace is how easy it is for a person therein to hide their true identity. You'll think you're talking with your bosom chum, only to find out its really some scoundrel.....why...a wolf in sheep's clothing! I get around this reservation by assuming, up front, that everyone's a liar. That way, if it turns out they're not, it's a pleasant surprise.

But there's no reason not to answer this guy Rey. If you're a blogger, you like to receive comments. And this bit about Marcion, whoever he is, is a comment. Actually, I have only three rules regarding comments, and “agreeing with me” is not one of them. I don't mind a bit when people don't agree with me, but

1.) comments have to be reasonably respectful.
2.) they have to be reasonably “on topic”.....you just can't submit a laundry list of all you don't like about Jehovah's Witnesses, and
3.)  they can't link back to a site whose primary or substantial purpose is to tear down JW beliefs.
 
For instance, one sorehead submitted a comment positively bursting with insults and crudeness, and so I read my rules to him, and asked “are you capable of writing such a comment?” His subsequent answer showed he was not.

Sometimes I'll think of minor corollaries to my three rules along the way.....comments that choke the virus checker, for example.....but in the main, those three rules are it.

So Rey keeps carrying on about this Marcion character, and he seems sort of an oddball, both he and his namesake, pushing theology that you might expect on a Dr Who episode. But am I not a blogger? So, blog already, Tom Sheepandgoats, even if you don't know exactly where this guy is coming from. You don't have to know everything.

Moreover, when you're responding to a comment, you don't necessarily address each point made. Especially when you're talking to a lunatic. It's too taxing for the reader. No. Pick a few points, or sometimes just one. If the fellow has ten additional points, let him submit ten additional comments. Just because he thinks in a muddle doesn't mean you have to. That way, readers can readily skip over whatever they find dull. So I go back and forth with this Rey character. All the time wondering....who is this guy anyway? Is he really a  devotee of Marcion, someone I've never heard of? Ah, well....blog away Tom. Just do it. Besides, sometimes good posts emerge from such conversations. You'll know it when you see it.

So we go round and round a bit, and I point out why I think this fellow is a nutjob, when suddenly Rey tips his hand:

“I don't get why a Jehovah's Witness would find Marcionism so offensive. Why wouldn't someone from a cult started in modern America be happy to jump back to a cult that actual has at least a claim to being authentic, I mean **hello** 2nd Century here. Your cult is clearly wrong in that it didn't exist until now. That one is from the early 2nd Century, pre-dating even the New Testament Canon!”

HA! So that's what this is all about! Another cult accusation! Up till now I had never met someone who believed in Marcionism, and now I saw that I still hadn't. It was all about setting me up for a sucker punch! Just like I'd been warned. Rey just doesn't like us. If you don't like someone, they are a sect. If you really don't like them, they are a cult.

Nonetheless, what about his charge? If you “didn't exist until now,” can you really claim to link directly to first century Christianity? Especially when the Catholics will tell you that Peter was the first Pope? (even though Peter was a married man)

You can. There are any number of passages in the Bible that point out 'new and improved teachings' would commence soon after the death of the apostles, and would overrun Jesus actual teachings. The latter would not be fully restored until the final days of this system of things. For example:

1.) Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt 13:24-30):

"Another illustration he set before them, saying: “The kingdom of the heavens has become like a man that sowed fine seed in his field. While men were sleeping, his enemy came and oversowed weeds in among the wheat, and left. When the blade sprouted and produced fruit, then the weeds appeared also. So the slaves of the householder came up and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow fine seed in your field? How, then, does it come to have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy, a man, did this.’ They said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go out and collect them?’ He said, ‘No; that by no chance, while collecting the weeds, you uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and in the harvest season I will tell the reapers, First collect the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them up, then go to gathering the wheat into my storehouse."

Lest anyone doubt how the verses apply, vs 36 continues:

And his disciples came to him and said: “Explain to us the illustration of the weeds in the field.” In response he said: “The sower of the fine seed is the Son of man; the field is the world; as for the fine seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; but the weeds are the sons of the wicked one, and the enemy that sowed them is the Devil. The harvest is a conclusion of a system of things, and the reapers are angels."

Didn't Paul also say the weeds would sprout? (Acts 20:29-30): "I  know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you and will not treat the flock with tenderness, and from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves."

Those early Christians spoke to the general populace, like Jesus and the apostles did. But that's hard. Over time, more and more people simply didn't want to hear it. Easier to preach to the choir! Teachers taking the lead in the congregation began to specialize, preaching only to their flock, and drawing a salary....something new....for doing so! Those only marginally “keeping on the watch” quickly adjusted to the new plan: pay a preacher and go hear him out once a week. The public ministry was tough.  Easier to become “the laity” at a "church," and focus six days a week (in time, all seven) on secular activities. Preachers became like politicians....adept at seeing which way the wind blew, so as to incorporate whatever was popular, and draw in more paying parishioners.

Christians should be “no part of the world?” (1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4; John 17:16) Why not become fully part of the world, and thus broaden your base? Oh....and there's going to be an “end of this system of things.....a “harvest?” Can't have that....it's too much of a disruption! Better to tell people to simply “be good” and go to heaven when they die. By the time of the fourth century, when Christianity became the Roman “state religion,” it was barely recognizable.

You can trace the details if you want....in fact, you should....but even intuitively, you know it's true. After all, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Dark Ages, the Holocaust, eager clergy participation on both sides of World Wars I and II, hardly square with what Christ taught. But it's all part of religious leaders pushing to the fore.....telling people whatever they'll most readily consume so as to expand their influence.

Everyone knows it's happened, but not everyone knows the Bible said it would happen. Nearly all the NT writers predicted it:

Jude: "Beloved ones, though I was making every effort to write you about the salvation we hold in common, I found it necessary to write to exhort you to put up a hard fight for the faith that was once for all time delivered to the holy ones. My reason is that certain men have slipped in who have long ago been appointed by the Scriptures to this judgment, ungodly men, turning the undeserved kindness of our God into an excuse for loose conduct and proving false to our only Owner and Lord, Jesus Christ." (vs 3-4)

Peter:   "However, there also came to be false prophets among the people, as there will also be false teachers among you. These very ones will quietly bring in destructive sects and will disown even the owner that bought them, bringing speedy destruction upon themselves. Furthermore, many will follow their acts of loose conduct, and on account of these the way of the truth will be spoken of abusively." (2 Peter 2:1-2)

John:  “Look out for yourselves, that you do not lose the things we have worked to produce, but that you may obtain a full reward. Everyone that pushes ahead and does not remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God. He that does remain in this teaching is the one that has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him."  (2 John 8-10)                   

and "I wrote something to the congregation, but Diotrephes, who likes to have the first place among them, does not receive anything from us [the apostle John!] with respect. That is why, if I come, I will call to remembrance his works which he goes on doing, chattering about us with wicked words."   (3 John -10)

Paul: “For there will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, but, in accord with their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, whereas they will be turned aside to false stories." (2 Tim 4:2-3)

And another parable of Jesus. Note a long period of inactivity.....sleep, it's called.....and when the bridegroom finally does arrive, not everyone's ready to receive him. Using language common to many Bible verses, Christ's followers initially prepare to meet the bridegroom [first century] But there is a long delay, during which they fall asleep. When the cry comes "Here is the Bridegroom," towards Christ's reappearance, some are not ready, having long strayed from Christian teaching:

"Then the kingdom of the heavens will become like ten virgins that took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were discreet. For the foolish took their lamps but took no oil with them, whereas the discreet took oil in their receptacles with their lamps. While the bridegroom was delaying, they all nodded and went to sleep. Right in the middle of the night there arose a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Be on your way out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and put their lamps in order. The foolish said to the discreet, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are about to go out.’ The discreet answered with the words, ‘Perhaps there may not be quite enough for us and you. Be on your way, instead, to those who sell it and buy for yourselves.’ While they were going off to buy, the bridegroom arrived, and the virgins that were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterwards the rest of the virgins also came, saying, ‘Sir, sir, open to us!’ In answer he said, ‘I tell you the truth, I do not know you."  (Matt 25:1-11)

The prophet Daniel received many visions, which are collected in the book bearing his name. Yet they were not to be understood during his time, or even during the time of Jesus' ministry, but only in the "time of the end." ........... "And as for you, O Daniel, make secret the words and seal up the book, until the time of [the] end. Many will rove about, and the [true] knowledge will become abundant." (Dan 12:4)

So, to quote Rey, is our “cult clearly wrong in that it didn't exist until now?" Frankly, in view of the above Bible verses, the more unbroken your history, the more suspect you are.

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Tom Irregardless and Me       No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

 

 


Rationalism, the Third World, and Bible Principles

At first it appeared the countries suffering the most would be the "guilty" countries - the ones whose banks invented the super leveraged credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations - the ones whose governments and citizens were head over heals in debt - the ones whose people had replaced the Bible with Consumer Reports. "Responsible" countries, those operating a surplus, whose citizens were frugal, such as China, Japan, and Germany - would emerge relatively unscathed. Ah, but it was not to be! The latter countries have suffered as much or more. Their strong balance sheet comes from exports, and now who remains to buy their goods?

But the really innocent countries - the third world countries - fare the worst by far. There, the downturn doesn't mean tarnished golden years. It means lives lost. Seldom are cause and effect linked so clearly - most often there is sufficient disconnect so that the connivers on top can remain oblivious to the havoc they wreak below. But not this time.

Economist this week considers the plight of Africa, (The Toxins Trickle Downward, 3/14/09) where in recent years, millions have inched their way above the poverty line, only to be shoved firmly beneath it again. Such countries are impacted in three ways: 1) credit market are closed to them, as they are riskier borrowers, and financial aid from wealthier countries wither, 2) commodity prices have collapsed, and commodities are usually their primary exports, and 3) remittances from citizens working abroad have dried up. The World Bank reckons these three factors will account for 200,000 - 400,000 lives lost, all children.

It's rare that the failure of human rule is shown in such stark relief, with consequences so directly traceable. How damnnable that people nonetheless prefer it to God's rulership as outlined in the Bible, as advertised by his Witnesses, and as practiced by the Christian organization. Here's an excerpt from someone who has left God - our God, no less - Jehovah, to embrace atheism. He gushes effusively about his new "rational worldview" (I have greatly condensed certain remarks, and to be fair, you might want to see them in their context here. The author includes a number of his gripes about Jehovah's Witnesses - mostly exaggerated drivel, in my view, that I may respond to if asked - likely in a separate post.):

 

Rationalism for me means a life of pure freedom. ..... But this means that this life that you’re living now is the most precious thing you’ll ever have. .... Because there is no Big Daddy to appease or suck up to, or be afraid of, you should be nice to people because it’s nice! You should treat people like you want to be treated! You should not steal or murder because it hurts people, and hurting people is wrong. Always. No one needs a god to tell them this.....

Being a rationalist....If you say something irrational or realise the error in your own thoughts, a red flag immediately raises. .....rationalism is a worldview with no drawbacks, and only positives. It encourages honesty and truth.....It promotes interest in the common good...

 

How lofty and soaring the words sound! How much crap they are in reality! As the "African" example shows, people use their "pure freedom," to grind others into the dirt, and not to "treat people like you want to be treated!" (an exclamation mark, no less....oh, the joys of rationalism!) They are not "nice to people." They "hurt people," two to four hundred thousand of them, even though "hurting people is wrong." Plainly, we do need a "big Daddy to appease" and a "god to tell" us how to live.

If you had had a son or daughter high up in the banking world, who was devising the complex financial instruments that would ultimately ruin us all, you would have carried on about how well junior was doing for himself, how respected he was in the business world, and so forth. Even experts in the field had not a clue they were playing with dynamite; if they had, they would have cashed out their investments before the markets plunged.

The fact is that humans were not designed to rule themselves. It's an ability they do not have. Whether through greed, ignorance, pride, or some mix of the three, the record of human rule aptly illustrates Jeremiah's words:

I well know, O Jehovah, that to earthling man his way does not belong. It does not belong to man who is walking even to direct his step   Jer 10:23

A major theme of the Bible is that God has designed rulership which will one day replace human rule. He will bring it about himself, and those who have sided with him will be mere bystanders. In the meantime, these latter ones declare this government by God:

And this good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations; and then the end will come.    (Matt 24:14)

Today, the organization of Jehovah's Witnesses govern their affairs in accord with Bible principles, which provides a hopeful foregleam of life under that Kingdom rule. It's well known that racial and tribal divisions - the ones tearing apart the world - utterly fail to divide Jehovah's Witnesses. It's well known that when natural disaster strikes, (for example, Katrina) teams of volunteers promptly care for their own, rebuilding homes while governments are yet twiddling their thumbs. It's well known that Kingdom Halls in the third world are often the most impressive building in town, far more than what the locals could afford - due to a sharing of resources and building talent from wealthier countries.

All this provided through an organization which counsels, which directs, which disciplines its own, which insists on members living by Bible principles. Grousers, such as one may find online, launch blistering attacks at this, for it seems to impede their freedom, and this they will not tolerate, even in trivial matters. But our "economy" works to the good of third world countries, rather than trampling them underfoot.

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Tom Irregardless and Me     No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash


Bernie Madoff and E.T. the Extraterristrial

Poor little E.T! So all alone and very far from home. His mummy and daddy landed their spaceship to explore the strange and beautiful planet earth. Of course, they told little E.T. to stay close, but you know how little boys and girls are, even those from other worlds! Soon E.T. was all turned around and hopelessly lost. All of a sudden, his mummy and daddy started their spaceship and zoomed away. They didn’t know they‘d left their little boy behind! Then, mean atheist grownups tried to catch E.T. and put him in an alien museum! But E.T. made friends with earth children, and the earth children hid him. They carried him on their bicycles to get away. When the grownups made a roadblock, E.T. used space powers to make the bicycles fly, leaving the grownups far below!

What a heartwarming movie! How wholesome! How uplifting! However, in E.T. Returns - the Sequel -didn’t I hear that was on the drawing board? - E.T. returns as a teenager. He’s surly. He’s sullen. He drinks, fights, and swears. Finally, he incinerates all of planet earth, starting with Wall Street!

Director Stephen Spielberg just lost an everloving fortune to Bernie Madoff, the shyster-financier whose legendary investment fund turned out to be no more than a massive Ponzi scheme, run from his non-descript office on Wall Street. Spielberg's not happy about it. In Ponzi schemes, earlier “investors” are paid off with funds taken from latter ones. Ponzi schemes work great until you run out of new investors. Once you do, they collapse. Mr. Madoff’s hadn’t yet reached the point of collapse. His sons had turned him in.

Bernie Madoff’s financial and personal pedigree was impeccable. Cultured, wealthy, refined, active in philanthropic causes - he had sealed his reputation chairing the NAZDAQ stock exchange. Surely he knew how to make investments behave! His sterling credentials attracted funds from the most financially savvy people in the world, themselves international bankers and hedge fund managers. Like shy debutantes, rich folk would sidle up to him at the country club, praying to be noticed, hoping to be invited to invest with him. A handful of his clients got too inquisitive - exactly how did he achieve his rock-steady consistent returns, anyway? - and he threw them out of his fund! This, of course, ensured that his remaining clients would toe the line - you don’t question a genius! Similarly, a handful of others complained about him to the SEC, at least one submitting a detailed analysis showing the man couldn’t possibly be operating the way he said he was. But the SEC, swayed by Madoff’s elegance and reputation, saw nothing amiss and declined to investigate! Their hero-worship cost Spielberg and other clients $50 billion dollars, at last estimate.

Ironically, Mr. Madoff’s clients included many bankers and hedge fund people who had shunned the CDO’s and credit swap instruments which have destroyed the world financial system. They were yet taking their bows for financial acumen and farsightedness, when their trousers dropped and all the world discovered they’d sent their money to Bernie instead, who’d lost every penny of principle! Isn't the Madoff scandal the spinning hubcap, still clattering long after the din of the main wreck has ended? When the racket finally stops, then maybe the whole demolished ruin of finance can be towed to the Obama collision shop, whose proprietor says he can fix it.

Mr. Madoff is Jewish, and the individuals who trusted him were predominantly Jewish. His scheme, therefore, was an example of affinity fraud, says this blogger.  She quotes an WSJ article:

 

The Madoff tale is striking in part because it is like stealing from family. Yet frauds that prey on people who share bonds of religion or ethnicity, who travel in the same circles, are quite common. Two years ago the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a warning about “affinity fraud.” The SEC ticked off a series of examples of schemes that were directed at members of a community: Armenian-Americans, Baptist Church members, Jehovah’s Witnesses, African-American church groups, Korean-Americans. In each case, the perpetrator relied on the fact that being from the same community provided a reason to trust the sales pitch, to believe it was plausible that someone from the same background would give you a deal that, if offered by someone without such ties, would sound too good to be true.

The sense of common heritage, of community, also makes it less seemly to ask hard questions. Pressing a fellow parishioner or club member for hard information is like demanding receipts from your aunt — it just doesn’t feel right. Hucksters know that, they play on it, and they count on our trust to make their confidence games work. The level of affinity and of trust may be especially high among Jews. The Holocaust and generations of anti-Semitic laws and practices around the world made reliance on other Jews, and care for them, a survival instinct. As a result, Jews are often an easy target both for fund-raising appeals and fraud. But affinity plays a role in many groups, making members more trusting of appeals within the group.

I’d never heard the term “affinity fraud,” nor am I aware of specific schemes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m sure there have been some. I’ve just not heard of them. Of course, I do know of business deals between brothers going south or sour. You know - say Tom Sowmire invites Tom Oxgoad to go in halves with him to build a shoe horn factory. Surely they’ll make a killing! However, Sowmire - a passable enough Christian, is really not very bright as a businessman, and soon the whole project has gone down the drain. That’s why we get a lot of counsel through our publications to the effect that Christians ought not be stupidly naïve when it comes to business matters: don’t put trust in every word, count the costs, get all details in writing….that sort of thing. Jesus said that “the sons of this system of things are wiser in a practical way toward their own generation than the sons of the light are.” (Luke 16:8) It’s a disquieting observation, but there is truth to it.

Then there was the period about 20 years ago when the friends started to get sucked into multi-level marketing schemes. You know…you sell a line of health products. You persuade some of your customers to also sell your products, which makes you a distributor. They, in turn, persuade some to sell for them, and you get a cut of everything downstream. It’s seductive. The pitch is that you will be helping your friends, providing them with stuff they really need. The glossy advertising shows you and your family lounging around your fancy swimming pool, with your mansion and luxury cars in the background. Ideally, you are thumbing your chest, just like in those innumerable Watchtower pictures decrying materialism. Multi-level outfits love to target close-knit religious communities, like ours. Members of such communities have a lot of friends who are sitting ducks for sales pitches. It got so that everyone could tick off a half dozen or so brothers they knew who were hawking vitamins, or internet plans, or drain plungers - buttonholing all their pals. But one brother observed that if he was going to enthusiastically speak to all about anything, it ought to be about the truth. Since he didn’t do that, it seemed disingenuous to do it for the sake of nose hair clippers.

Anyway, the JW organization endured it for a short while, then starting coming out with articles that you don’t go using “theocratic contacts” for personal gain. Not setting rules, you understand, but by repeated counsel, an atmosphere was established in which you would never dream of pushing your line of deodorants upon spiritual brothers. Now it’s a little like passing gas in public - it’s not that it’s forbidden, but nobody does it.

From a distance, it might seem that Jehovah’s Witnesses are like salesmen - hawking religion. But those who approach their ministry that way are not effective. Me, I enjoy the ministry, but I make a wretched salesman. I’m always thinking about why the other person doesn’t need whatever I‘m offering. Consequently, I’ve stayed away from sales as a career. One time, though, I came across a product that I thought I could sell….a type of insurance. I applied for the job, signed up for training, obtained an insurance license.  Alas, it turned out to be arm-twisting. The supposed people who had already shown interest - so that you would not need to do cold calling - had actually shown interest a long time ago, and had already been bludgeoned a dozen times or so by arm twisters before you got their number. So they weren’t in very good humor. A training video demonstrated how one might overcome sales resistance - the householder involved was reduced to tears (by guilting him) until he finally signed on. The company (whose stock price just hit a 13 year low) considered this a sterling example of salesmanship. How else could you help such a person, it was pointed out. It wasn’t work I could see myself doing, so I dropped out, but to this day I regret not standing up then and there and telling them all how despicable their video was.

Ah well, that’s the business world for you. It is what it is. If you’re not very careful, you’ll find yourself using other people (or being used by them). But thanks to Bernie Madoff and the parade of bankers preceding him, perhaps all that stuff will go down the drain. Nobody has any money anymore.

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Tom Irregardless and Me      No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

 

 


Nest Eggs, Fried Eggs, and the Real Life

Twentysomethings are not so distraught by today’s financial crisis as you might think. “All we have to lose is a crummy job,” one of them told me. (He actually said "crappy," but I have cleaned his remark up for the internet.) It’s the older generation’s problem.

Might there even be a certain delight….a certain “payback” to the generation or two that inherited a world of pensions, good pay, and job security…..and left for their kids a boatload of McJobs…low-paying jobs with no security, no health benefits, and little advancement. Even pleasant souls likeRagoth, a grad student presumably not destined for a McJob, seem unconcerned. Yes, it's tragic, he allows. Still, he is yet in school and has his job. Fair’s fair, I guess. There were recessions in both 1974 and 1982, yet a much younger me barely noticed.

But if the kids aren’t really sweating it, many folks my age are devastated. They were planning to retire…some could practically taste it….and now with 401Ks decimated they find they must keep right on working. That’s assuming they have work…..the tougher cases are being laid off just as they've reached this sad conclusion. Worse, some already retired find their secure retirement income isn't so secure as they thought. They may have to return to work (at age 80). Nest eggs changed into fried eggs, as one pundit put it.

Spiritual views must come into play here, because to the extent people bought into this system, adopting the hopes and dreams of a predominantly materialistic, consumer driven society….to that extent they’ve been let down and let down pretty hard. Some have been crushed. As the psychological types constantly remind us, it’s not really what happens to us…..it’s how we feel about what’s happened to us…..that determines our emotional well-being. If you've been yearning for the good life in your later years with all your heart and soul...and it's an easy yearning to develop since the world constantly dangles it in front of us, you may have been let down hard.

Grousers and soreheads of every stripe abound on the internet, (sometimes I think there’s no one else) and Jehovah’s Witnesses, too, have their share of detractors……if not more than their share. They’ll rail against the JW organization, their view of the Bible, their recommended way of life, their worldview. It’s brainwashing, it’s deception, it’s missing out on the marvels and joys that the world promises, they holler. Man, who’s hollering now? It’s Jehovah’s Witnesses who are best protected emotionally, and those who looked to this world for security the least.

Look, don’t misunderstand. I’m not thrilled with what’s happened either. I’ve taken significant hits, along with most others my age. Many have been hurt far worse. But I was going to serve Jehovah throughout my days anyway, and now I still am. Jehovah’s Witnesses never imagined this system to be a source of security. The three words of Jesus with the most impact for the future…..”thy kingdom come.”…..this is what we believe, represent, and look forward to. If latter years turn out a little rougher than we until recently thought, well…..it was only a question of timing. None of us envisioned the success of human rule, and all of us look to God’s Kingdom as the ultimate solution to the planet’s chaos. Much of the world has far more than monetary chaos to worry about.

Paul said:

Give orders to those who are rich in the present system of things not to be high-minded, and to rest their hope, not on uncertain riches, but on God, who furnishes us all things richly for our enjoyment; to work at good, to be rich in fine works, to be liberal, ready to share, safely treasuring up for themselves a fine foundation for the future, in order that they may get a firm hold on the real life.    1 Tim 6:17-19  

It’s not bad counsel, is it? And I don’t mean to imply that no one other than Jehovah’s Witnesses have ever observed it, but it does typify our lifestyle, teachings and organization. It probably is us who take it the most seriously. Cruise the internet and see we are derided for it from various pundits who are keeping score and have discovered that, as a group, Jehovah's Witnesses have less toys and money than many others. But it's largely due to observing the above counsel. Since their inception, Jehovah's Witnesses have deliberately stressed pursuing the simple life that allows time and energy for spiritual things. We hear it constantly: the “real life” is life in the new system, “riches” in this world are most uncertain, “store up treasures in heaven” and so forth. It eventually sinks in.

Give me neither poverty nor riches..... Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is Jehovah? Or lest I be poor, and steal.    Prov 30:8-9 ASV

Money's not a bad thing, make no mistake. You don't want poverty, for obvious reasons. But neither do "riches" come without risk. In western lands, where Consumer Reports is the Bible, and the mall is the center of worship, plenty of  “full” people have learned to "deny thee, and say, Who is Jehovah?" But riches have not been kind lately to those who trust in them.

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Tom Irregardless and Me     No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash


Alan Greenspan and the Financial Black Hole

As the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva was about to become operational, dire warnings appeared on the internet. Scientists had been salivating about their Collider for the longest time. At last they’d be able to simulate conditions from the Big Bang and learn…..well, all kinds of things about physics. But worrywarts fretted that these wise ones would instead open up black holes right here on terra firma….and swallow up everything! Two fellows in Hawaii even filed a “cease and desist” lawsuit, but the far away European scientists pooh-poohed it all. Not to worry, they said, any results of their tinkering would be at the subatomic level. Nonchalantly, chuckling at these unscientific nutjobs, they flipped the switch….and half the world’s wealth promptly vanished into a financial black hole! The week ending Oct 10 was the worst week for U.S. stocks since 1914  [!]

SIR - Can it really be a coincidence that within weeks of the Large Hadron Collider being switched on for the first time a financial black hole has appeared in the universe? - Barclay Price, Edinburgh     (letter to editor: Economist)

And from the Yahoo question board:

How did the Large Hadron Collider cause the biggest stock market crash in History?

Apparently taking this for a serious question, people wrote in to say that 1929 and 1987 had seen larger single day crashes, that the market slide had begun a year ago, and that real estate and bank shenanigans, not physics, has caused the meltdown. And besides, like all new projects, the Collider didn’t go online as scheduled, but glitches and difficulties kept it under repair from the start.

But let these apologists say what they will….it was those infernal scientists! They can’t leave well enough alone. Always have to mess with things. Just like when my son used to work the car window up and down, up and down, and I’d tell him not to because he was going to break it. And do you know what happened? Exactly…..and I was out the cost of a new window motor. Of course, breaking a car window motor is not as serious as destroying the entire worldwide financial system, but the principle is exactly the same and I wasn't happy.

In the aftermath, Alan Greenspan testified before Congress:

“We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century credit tsunami. Central banks and governments are being required to take unprecedented measures. You, importantly, represent those on whose behalf economic policy is made, those who are feeling the brunt of the crisis in their workplaces and homes. I hope to address their concerns today.”

This is the same Alan Greenspan whose voice to the financial community used to be like that of God, the only difference being that God knew what he was talking about. Not that Mr. Greenspan wasn’t bright and competent and all…..it's just that it took only a single flaw to bring down a whole lifetime of work. As chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, he’d issue statements at least once a month when setting interest rate policy. He’d make the statements incomprehensible….it was almost a game. He’d rehearse them in his head. If they could be understood, he'd rework them. Finance people would strain to discern his real intent, but of course, the task was impossible….by design. Far from becoming fed up with such obscuration, they took it all for brilliance! I mean, any street person would recognize a con-job in two seconds flat, but the bankers hailed it as wisdom from on high. After all, they were making tons of money. Did anything else truly matter?

Mr. Greenspan’s successor, Ben Bernanke, is more straightforward. Mr. Greenspan himself became that way addressing Congress. He dropped the smart-alecky double talk. His words were clear. And not very pretty.

“Given the financial damage to date, I cannot see how we can avoid a significant rise in layoffs and unemployment. Fearful American households [not to mention….which he didn’t…the rest of the world] are attempting to adjust, as best they can, to a rapid contraction in credit availability, threats to retirement funds, and increased job insecurity. All of this implies a marked retrenchment of consumer spending as households try to divert an increasing part of their incomes to replenish depleted assets, not only in 401Ks, but in the value of their homes as well.”

No more smug cuteness building indecipherable word castles. For, alas, “those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself particularly) are in as state of shocked disbelief.”

Then Mr. Greenspan discusses what triggered the collapse: factors involving CDOs, already discussed here.

And…

“It was the failure to properly price such risky assets that precipitated the crisis. In recent decades, a vast risk management and pricing system has evolved, combining the best insights of mathematicians and finance experts supported by major advances in computer and communications technology. A Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of the pricing model that underpins much of the advance in derivatives markets. This modern risk management paradigm held sway for decades. The whole intellectual edifice, however, collapsed in the summer of last year because the data inputted into the risk management models generally covered only the past two decades, a period of euphoria.”

Note the absolute failure of the best and the brightest - the cream of the crop of human experts. A Nobel Prize was awarded, for crying out loud, for the economic model that would subsequently ruin us all! This was the not work of con men, but of the most learned, the most highly educated (the most profit-driven?) persons of society. And the final admission is staggering: nobody thought to test the model outside of partytime - “a period of euphoria.” Nobody thought that the real world might be different than the party world!

Isn’t there some scripture somewhere about how you can’t trust “nobles” as far as you can spit?

Do not put your trust in nobles, nor in the son of earthling man, to whom no salvation belongs.
 His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground;
       In that day his thoughts do perish.   Ps 146:3,4


And doesn’t this validate how Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t bow and scrape and slobber over today’s higher education?Instead they extract from education the ability to make a living, while drawing on other sources for wisdom.”

After his statement, the House Committee grilled Mr. Greenspan for awhile, forcing him to admit:

“I found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works. That’s precisely the reason I was shocked…I still do not fully understand why it happened, and obviously to the extent that I figure it happened and why, I will change my views.”

I was going to offer up some feeble joke about how the flaw he didn’t reckon on was the Hadron Collider. But I won’t do it. The whole mess is too serious and sad.

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Tom Irregardless and Me     No Fake News but Plenty of Hardship


Wealth Distribution and the Jubilee

I plucked the latest Economist from my mailbox and thought I’d picked up the Watchtower by mistake. “World on the Edge” read the headline. Sure enough, on the cover was a silhouetted figure peering fearfully over the edge into the chasm below. And the edge was crumbling. Such illustrations have become commonplace in these recent days of financial meltdown.

A week or two ago, news anchor Suzie Gherow asked her economist guest (alas, I forgot his name) if he could come up with a moral to the unfolding crisis. He observed that many peoples worldwide look to the American economic system as a model to admire and emulate. He wondered if they would still do that "when they see how badly we’ve behaved.” As if responding to cue, Vladimir Putin, of all people, recently accused: “Everything happening now in the economic and financial sphere began in the United States. This is not the irresponsibility of specific individuals but the irresponsibility of the system that claims leadership.” I read this in an on-line newspaper. It included comments. Most bloggers agreed with Putin.

At any rate, government leaders are scrambling to come up with innovative solutions, doing things that not long ago would have been unthinkable…..countries assuming their banks’ bad debts, even nationalizing the banks….a partial nationalization here in the U.S, which is close to heresy in the land of free enterprise. One almost thinks of those verses that tell how mountains and hills during the “last days” would melt. The very institutions that seem to us as solid and unshakable as the literal mountains seemed to ancient peoples, are indeed shaking quickly.

In such a climate, it becomes crucial to assign blame. With that in mind, the appropriate committee of Congress (the House Committee on Government Reform) recently grilled Lehman Brothers ex-CEO Dick Fuld. For the most part Mr. Fuld outmaneuvered them. There’s a lot of Congressmen on that committee, and they all had to have their crack at him, so they weren’t allotted too much time apiece. Mr. Fuld succeeded in running out the clock…..repeating questions aloud, questioning premises, answering slowly and deliberately. Plus, there were not a few windbags among those politicians who wasted much of their time formulating their questions….you know, with prefaces and addendums and things, the way politicians like to do. Too, the Reprentatives were so wrapped up in their own questions that they didn't listen to answers of other people's questions. Thus, there was much repetition.

While Mr. Fuld was being interviewed, CNBC reported that a sore Lehman employee had socked him in the kisser some days ago while he was working out at the company gym!….a move he apparently did not outmaneuver.

Depending upon who you listen to, Mr. Fuld conveyed genuine remorse for Lehman’s demise. On the matter of compensation, however, he didn’t budge an inch. Though he made tens of millions of dollars in the very year his company tanked, that was proper remuneration, he insisted. After all, he pointed out, had the company remained solvent, he would have made much more. But this didn’t sit too well with the general public. If I had a dollar for every gripe I’ve heard about “obscene profits” of the big bankers, I, too, would have obscene profits and people could gripe about me.

When the new system at last arrives…..the government from God that the Bible speaks of and that Jehovah’s Witnesses advertise……will there be “obscene profits” in the hands of a very few? If the economic system handed down to ancient Israel is any guide, the answer is no. The Jubilee provision would see to that.

Every 50th year of that ancient agrarian system was the Jubilee year. At that time, each Jew was restored to his or her original allotted land inheritance. Through an interplay of hard work and dumb luck some would have prospered in those 50 years, others would have declined, maybe to the point of becoming impoverished. Land might well have been bought or sold. But not in perpetuity. On that 50th year, all things were set as at the beginning. Thus, while one would be rewarded for one’s work and business acumen, there would never take root a permanent underclass, nor a permanent wealthy class…..a situation characteristic of most societies today.

Some aspects of the cycle repeated every 7th year. Due to debts incurred, a Jew might even sell himself into slavery to one of his more prosperous neighbors. Laws regulated against mistreatment; moreover after seven years at most, the individual was set free, and that with a gift (from the prior owner) to assist him in starting anew. Again, neither a perpetual privileged class nor a locked-in poverty class could ever take root under that God-given arrangement.  Even were a man to squander every opportunity he had, the law was such that his children would still live to see equilibrium restored.

Awhile back I ran a post entitled Slavery in the Old Testament, intending to counter those critics who rail against the Bible for acknowledging and regulating slavery, rather than forbidding it. The post clarified the nature of OT slavery and, to my surprise, some commented that such slavery sounded pretty good compared to the plight of the homeless today, or even the working poor. Screecheven broke it down into figures which I will reproduce, confident he won’t mind:

“In the US minimum wage is currently $5.85 an hour. Lets suppose that you work 2 jobs; one FT and one PT. So 12 hours at that pay is $70.20 before taxes. After taxes are withheld, you have $56.87 a day left. You spend $65 (you have a cheap one) at your doctor's office. You get lucky and only spend $4 on the antibiotics that you need. You also are forced to take 3 days off from both jobs while you recover. Total cost is $239.58. That's four and a half days of pay. So if you have rent of $650 monthly, $135 monthly utilities (phone, electricity), $100 monthly food, $50 transportation costs. Now, in the above scenario, you have $200 left over every month. However, if you lose one of your jobs, suddenly you're short almost $200 monthly. What if you have a kid? 2 Jobs may not be an option and then you have to pay for daycare. Then you hear "go back to school." Yet if you have to take remedial classes to catch up, that adds to the expense (grants alone rarely cover everything). I guess the whole point of this rambling is that to overcome poverty in this world takes an astounding amount of sacrifice and will, with no guarantee of success. In fact, you also don't get real medical attention because the medical bills can pile up. I've seen and experienced the difference in medical care that you receive when you can afford to pay the bill vs not. It's actually a worse situation today…”

About a third of all those in Congress are millionaires, with a higher proportion in the Senate. Less than 1% of the general population fall into that category. It doesn’t give confidence that one might get justice from these guys, does it?….how many of them can even imagine how ordinary people live? Yet their wealth is dwarfed by that of the high-profile bankers who have lately been testifying before them….guys like Dick Fuld. A little Jubilee might work wonders today.

Of course, it could never be superimposed upon today’s society, just as Jesus said: one can’t pour new wine into old wineskins. The prevailing system wouldn’t accommodate it, few folks today have dispostions that would tolerate it. But those trained in Bible principles today should be amenable to it or whatever economic system God provides in the new order. There’s no telling to what degree, if any, God’s new system will draw from that ancient Jubilee arrangement. Nonetheless, the arrangement does offer a glimpse into Jehovah’s thinking.

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Tom Irregardless and Me     No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash


Bailing, Bailing, and Bailing

It seemed certain that the House would pass the bailout bill, but it almost didn’t happen. It took two tries.

Conservative House members cited their constituents, who demanded by a 9 to 1 margin (if not more) that the plan be rejected. The threat of another Great Depression didn’t faze them. Bailing out Wall Street bankers just made their blood boil! Would those same bankers bail them out if they fell behind in their mortgages? HA! Out on the street they would go! Ask anyone who’d been late with a credit card payment and in consequence seen their interest rate jump from 10 to 30%, and that with the bills deliberately arriving only days before payment was due……no, there was not much sympathy for big-time bankers. Tuesday (9/30/08) that bailout package went down by a 228 - 205 vote.

But the stock market immediately dropped 800 points. And small businesses back home were promptly frozen out of credit markets as banks simply stopped lending (even to entire states, like Schwarzenegger’s California). By Friday the Representatives were in a different mood and signed off on a slightly revised bill. Sixty of them had changed sides. The new vote was 263 yea, 177 nay.

The nature of the revisions is significant. The approved package took up 450 pages, whereas the initial proposal took up 3. You can read three pages; Representatives did and concluded the bill stunk. But do you seriously think these guys are going to read 450 pages? In a two day period? You just check to see that your own pet project is in there, and sign on the dotted line. Incredibly…..I mean, this is truly astounding, given that life or death for the entire worldwide financial system was purportedly at stake….Congresspersons loaded up that final bill with pork….a few million for this favored project, another few million for that one….same as they always do! Total added cost: $100 billion! PorkFor example, it was stipulated that from this point on, government subsidies for mental health disabilities were to be on par with those for physical disabilities. (though perhaps addressing mental disabilities isn't so dumb an idea in the wake of the current meltdown)

And they nearly came to blows blaming each other. On the very cusp of that first vote, the Democratic House Speaker nancy Pelosi launched into a bitter tirade blaming the entire mess on the Republicans and its President in particular. At that point it’s said that some of those Republicans who were prepared to vote “yes” dug in their heels out of sheer partisan spite and switched to “no.”

It is still to be seen if the world’s financial system begins to stabilize or if the woes have only begun. But either way, this past week has not been kind to human governments or those who put their confidence in them. Instead, its played into the Bible theme that Jehovah’s Witnesses have been advancing forever, that humans do not have the ability to rule themselves. They simply don’t have it, same as they don’t have the ability to fly or walk through walls. Avarice, arrogance, corruption, or just plain ineptness wins out every time.

JWs are the only major faith I know of that takes this position. All others assume, to a greater or lesser degree, that God is backing the present human system of governments. As if to illustrate, after that second vote the House Minority Leader John Boehner reminded all of the U.S. currency motto: in God we trust. “We’re going to need his help,” he warned his colleagues. (Privately he called the bill a "crap sandwich.") But the present system of worldwide rulership….scores of independent nations eternally pushing and shoving each other… isn’t God’s system. Rather, it finds its roots ages ago in rebellion against God’s own sovereignty….as shown way back there in the Adam and Eve account. After a sufficiently long (thousands of years) trial period during which the unsuitability of human rule makes itself blatantly clear, God intervenes with his own kingdom, which is really no more than a restoration of his original purpose. The “Lord’s prayer,” which everyone used to know, informs that his will is done only when his kingdom comes (as opposed to patching up disintegrating human governments):

                                                your kingdom come,
                                        your will be done
                                        on earth as it is in heaven
       Matt 6:10

Or as foreshadowed in Daniel 2:44: 

In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.

Announcing this kingdom is what Jehovah’s Witnesses are all about. Lots of people….most people by far…don’t really want to hear it. But there are some who do, some who respond to the JW invitation to a Bible study, and some of those who….recognizing a message that is found nowhere else….attach themselves to the faith.

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Tom Irregardless and Me     No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash