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When a technician/engineer intentionally underdimensions a bridge to save costs for his employer, and the bridge collapses in that one-storm-in-a-century, the technician/engineer gets the blame.

When a banker/financial engineer intentionally underdimensions a loan to save costs for his employer, and the loan collapses in that one-crisis-in-a-century, the banker/financial engineer gets a bonus.

Can somebody explain this to a simple technician/engineer?


Jeroen
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Only people who live from our tax money can explain this.

Peter
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It's only confusing when you look at the world through a lens of morality and justice. Look instead through a lens of pragmatics and power. They have the power (both political and financial) to influence events in their favor, thus they do it.
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Will /Chicago /USA
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"Some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen" - from the folk song "Pretty Boy Floyd", by Woody Guthrie.

I would at least try to accept this situation if I saw some signs of life in the banking regulatory and/or lawmaking authorities. But given the absence of such signs of life, I don't know what to do other than to be angry and frustrated. It's a dangerous combination of feelings, and has at least some risk of creating "social unrest" and worse things.

The only related governmental activity I see from news reports is cutting back established social programs.

If the banks are assumed to be essential industries, like electrical power companies, or the water supply industries, they must be strongly regulated as utilities with fixed profit margins, and not allowed to wander off into highly leveraged, high-risk excesses. We've learned this lesson several times in the past tens of decades, but as each banking crisis dims from public memory, we seem to let the financial services industry wander into the weeds once again, apparently believing "it's different this time."
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Best wishes,

Phil Bunch
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Jerone

i think the Irish government surely can answer your question...look at it now, IMF (opportunistic) got the innocent Irish ordinary citizen by their necks...

PM won't resign as to tell us that it was more of the financial institution's (engineers') fault...

I really feel for the Irish...
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OK....I am ok, if you are ok...!!
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OKD wrote
Jerone

i think the Irish government surely can answer your question...look at it now, IMF (opportunistic) got the innocent Irish ordinary citizen by their necks...

PM won't resign as to tell us that it was more of the financial institution's (engineers') fault...

I really feel for the Irish...


Re the tragedy and insanity of the Irish situation, see this new editorial by Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist and NY Times editorialist:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/26/opinion/26krugman.html?_r=1&ref=todayspaper&pagewanted=print
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Phil Bunch
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I read that this morning, and Krugman's comparison between Ireland and Iceland is compelling. Assuming his argument is correct, the most fascinating question for me would be this: what explains the differences in decision-making in the two countries? Why did Ireland go the route of nationalizing their banks' debt, and why did Iceland leave the debt private? Did the bankers in Ireland have better lobbyists? Or is there something in the national psyche that compels the nation to suffer together? Any ideas?
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Will /Chicago /USA
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oh yeah...forgotten about the Icelandic episode from now long ago...but I am feeling that this is just the tip of the iceberg
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Another interesting read, from The Economist magazine. As far as I can tell this article is open for non-subscriber reading:

http://www.economist.com/node/17577107

The "too big or too systemically important to fail" approach to investment banking and other financial services businesses is not practical or desirable, IMO. Not sure where we should go from here, even if our mostly compromised political leaders agreed with my personal opinion. How do we get our democracies back? How do we cope with China and their government-supported businesses and banks, given that they now hold over $2 trillion of US government debt? How can the Euro and the EU stabilize their financial services industries and governments? The bailout approach doesn't seem to be practical or desirable in either the US or the EU.

I don't think this story is going to have a happy ending.
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Best wishes,

Phil Bunch
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Another interesting editorial today, also at the NY Times. Below are the URL and the first 2 paragraphs:
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http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/26/the-power-of-failure/?pagemode=print

Despite the very dire consequences of the latest financial crisis that Wall Street perpetrated on the world, America cannot seem to shake its infatuation with Wall Street bankers and traders.

We continue to shower them with riches, prestige and glory. We make movies about them. We write books about them. We seriously overpay and then envy them. This year alone, while millions of others suffer from the Great Recession, bankers and traders are expected to be paid incredibly another estimated $144 billion in compensation and benefits. Accordingly, Wall Street remains the No. 1 destination for our best and brightest.
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Also see this interesting blog by an MIT economics professor, the author of an informative book on the crisis, "13 Bankers - Wall Street Takeover".

http://baselinescenario.com/

The headline for today's blog (Nov 27, 2010) is "Will Ireland Default? Ask Belgium"

I recently read that 40% of the graduating class at MIT will go to work for Wall Street each year, no doubt attracted by wealth and power beyond comprehension. It's hard to imagine what inventions and socially useful leadership abilities are being diverted from our industries and our academic research institutions. If our best technical universities are being exploited so heavily to staff speculative financial businesses, are they really worth supporting with taxes and philanthropy? Perhaps Wall Street should be required to pay for these universities via a special tax?

Why should the ordinary taxpayers, such as the nurses and the janitors, be taxed and suddenly impoverished to bail out and support the financial services industry and their managers while radically reducing the social programs and activities of our governments?

IMO, the current crisis isn't limited to Ireland and Greece, and it seems to me that the Euro is probably doomed. Perhaps the dollar is doomed, too, and perhaps China will walk away from this global gambling casino with all the chips? Yet they don't seem ready for world leadership or domination yet. (I am an idealistic (naive??) supporter of the EU, personally, and expect it to continue to build a new type of democracy, setting an example for the world.)

The major problem at hand isn't the generous pensions of Greece or the salaries of Ireland's public school teachers - it's the "too big to fail" financial service system's risk-free speculation industries and their control of our political and regulatory systems.

Yet I don't have a clue how we could rebuild our banking systems and neither do our politicians or academic leaders, as best I can follow. Perhaps there are clues in studying Iceland's recovery - each country is to some extent a separate experiment from which we can learn something. I don't get the impression that the "bailout and print digital money" approach is working very well beyond the short term since it doesn't fix the bad loans, mortgages, etc, created by our living dead banking institutions.

Another interesting example is provided by Canada, which few have noticed. Their banking systems have been mostly unaffected by the crisis since they maintained traditional regulations and controls, avoiding the deregulation mania that has swept most other countries, and the bizarre theory that "the market will solve everything on its own". They may be the primary example of how to rebuild our laws and banks, mostly by just establishing a similar set of laws. There's more to it than rebuilding the banks in the US, though - we also have to find ways to rescue our political system from unlimited commercial ownership. This is a necessary but not sufficient condition for stable democracies, I believe. As I understand it, the UK prohibits purchasing their politicians and political system.

Sorry to go on for so long. I hope I haven't been too unpleasant in my tone, etc. If I have offended anyone, especially a person who who holds different opinions, I offer my apologies in advance.
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Best wishes,

Phil Bunch
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Frank Rich, as usual, hits it out of the park with his essay on the influence that money has in politics, and therefore the influence that it has on (not) fixing our financial and political situation in the USA:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/28/opinion/28rich.html?_r=1&hp
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Will /Chicago /USA
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I think you just voiced my concerns better than I could have done myself.

Suppose that "safety" and "risk" in the banking world would be exactly the same as in the aviation world. What would change?

If a plane crashes, people die, including the pilots (they hit the mountain first). The managers survive but will be held accountable, even if the crash was pilot's error, because they did not train or select or monitor the pilots well enough.

If a bank crashes, people don't die, and the traders don't die either. The managers survive and are not held accountable, since the crash was trader's error and nobody can know everything about everything. Yet, due to the bank's crash, millions of people suffer and some may actually die. Possibly even more than when a fully loaded A380 crashes.

It may just be that in finance, which is 99% a virtual, invented world, physical risk including poverty and suffering have been too far removed from virtual risk. It may have turned into a game. You can win loads of wealth, and lose nothing. Just assure that you get a front seat.

If this is the case, we face the problem that we need to dismantle one of the most profitable industries worldwide because it is not sustainable. It would pull the plug out of nearly everything else since we built our world largely on the assumption that wealth is not finite and just needs careful management to grow forever.

I was genuinely surprised to read that 40% of MIT graduates seems to find its way into the money stacks. I do know that especially econometricians, whom I knew a lot in a previous academic life, are basically mathematical nerds that love to solve incredibly complex puzzles using meaningless figures and characters to represent "stuff". These people can be used as wonderful resources if you replace "stuff" in their equations by "money". They themselves don't see it this way and just coast along. It's potentially the people that employ these financial technicians and don't build in a safety system, including risk reflection back to the technicians, that may need to be looked at.

Challenger disaster. Technicians had been warning against the O-ring for a while, but were not sufficiently close to the fire to firmly put their feet down and their managers did not pick it up for various reasons.

Colombia disaster. Technicians had been warning against unknown effects for a while, but were not sufficiently close to the fire to firmly put their feet down and their managers confused "we don't know" with "it likely isn't serious".

It may be that financial technicians simply have been ignored for the same reasons. They saw it statistically coming, but were not going to be personally affected (not straight away), and their message wasn't welcomed by the people who wanted to increase profits and looked at themselves as successful entrepreneurs.

NASA and other organisations working with inherently dangerous equipment and running risky operations have learned that reporting channels from the inside to the outside are needed to keep everything safe. Once in a while they find out that they have been slacking and tighten up the system.

Airlines are commercial. On one hand they want to do it right and follow NASA-like reporting procedures and openness to stay safe. On the other hand they like to keep things quiet, at least to the outside world, for publicity reasons.

Banks are commercial. They have too many reasons to not report trouble inside out.

I consider myself a rational technician. I'd like to see extensive reports from an airline on what went wrong, what was done to prevent it to go wrong again, and how this has been monitored since. I'd prefer to fly with a company with such a web site, because I know that the hundreds of small problems that I see there are reflecting the care with which a technical operation is being managed.

However, most people are not a technician and may be a bit less rational. They like to not hear about problems. They are scared away by an airline with 500 problems on their web site and go to the safe one, that has zero problems.

Banks don't talk to technicians.


Jeroen
« Last edit by Jeroen Hoppenbrouwers on Sun, 28 Nov 2010 07:19:09 +0000. »
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Jeroen,

I completely agree with your sentiments as far as they go.

Banking, by its very nature, is a risk business, playing with the only entity capable of representing our assets and liabilities to others - money. Noone can reasonably argue for no banks, and no lending. Likewise, noone can reasonably argue for no flying without the demonstration that flying is risk-free.

So, the next step in the argument, surely, is to ask why the management at the banks allowed their lending situations to get so far out of balance. The answer to this, I feel, must lie with the banking regulators. But who are these people?

Unfortunately, in an increasingly globalised world, responsibility in this area is a hopeless mess of national banks, World Bank, IMF, OECD, etc., etc. And to this toxic mess we have to add....the politicians. Together these organisations largely stood aside from the growing mess, enjoying all-expenses-paid trips all over the world to fiddle while Rome was burning, and then individually denying it was their fault when the fires spread rapidly.

At bottom, the most intelligent suggestion that I have heard so far is to prevent all banks, whatever their size, from holding lending books more than a fixed multiple of their easily-liquifiable assets. The multiple could be different for different sizes of institution.

To achieve this fixed multiple, each bank would be required to package depts of the same type into CDOs, to be sold on the open markets to anyone wishing to buy them. If no buyer, then the bank cannot make any further loans. This then makes the banks into asset/debt intermediaries, rather than holders of vaste debts. In effect, it spreads the risk, and any future debt crisis would be spread across a much wider base than at present.

But will such an agreement be made internationally? Not if it prevents a lot of future all-expenses-paid trips to further conferences! Because, in a globalised world, we must have a single point of control over all international banks. I cannot think that this is likely in the foreseeable future.

Sorry to end on a negative note.
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Cheers, Richard
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mcdonar wrote
So, the next step in the argument, surely, is to ask why the management at the banks allowed their lending situations to get so far out of balance. The answer to this, I feel, must lie with the banking regulators.

If we focus on this one for the moment.

NASA basically regulates itself, right? It has put up a strict regime because it knows that without such a regime, it cannot function, missions don't get completed.

Military aviation operations are more or less the same. If they fail by crashing, they simply don't do their work very well. Both NASA and the military are not paid by performance, they are paid to get a job done and they put getting the job done above undershooting the budget. Better abort a complete branch of activities (cancel a programme) than economise on safety of the current missions (well... but you see what I mean, I hope).

Airlines need external regulation, because unlike NASA, they don't fly to fly, but to earn money. It is in their short-term interest to keep near-incidents quiet and this needs to be countered by strict external regulation. Since a crash will always make the news (it can hardly be kept quiet) the airlines have an incentive to at least work on safety which is not strictly required by regulation.

Banks... lots of external regulation, yet no crashes so no incentive to go beyond the regulations?


Jeroen
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Another brief idea. Airline customers put themselves aboard. Bank customers are the investors who put some of their money aboard, but not themselves. Investors have already decided to take risk with their money, and have balanced the chance that they get more money with the chance that they lose it.

If investors were made to feel the risk they take is so high that they rather keep their money safe, banks would not need regulation.

There are too many safeguards between bank customers (the big investors, not the penny cattle) and the mountain. Investors demand ROIs that may simply be unsustainable, and banks go too far to provide these ROIs by taking too much risk -- or else they lose their customers and fail for sure.


Jeroen
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So Jeroen, I think you're on to something with the last post: risk should be more transparent. But the nature of risk is different in investing vs. engineering. The engineers live with a little bit of risk, but (I assume) they always seek to minimize it. In investing, that't not the case. You need a certain amount of risk for an endeavor to take off. There are many ways of looking at it, but I think risk correlates with the newness of an idea, or the chance that you think this idea will succeed compared to what everyone else thinks about it. Basically, risk can often be too low in investing, and thus the potential payoff too low, and thus investors will go elsewhere. So unlike at NASA, investors are not merely risk-tolerant, they're risk-seeking.

But I agree with you point in your previous post, that the amount of risk needs to be as transparent as possible. It needs to be seen and understood by all parties in a transaction. Or at least, each party needs to have access to all the data so they can make their own risk assessment. The subprime mortgages that got packed into CDO's ended up with AAA ratings and then got sold; the buyers were misled about the degree of risk involved. And in your bank example, when the bankers lend borrowed money (like from their investors), they may see the risk, but they don't feel it, since they personally have nothing on the line. The investment banks in the USA only recently became able to do this; formerly they were all private companies without shares sold at the exchanges, and they felt their degree of risk much more acutely.
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Will /Chicago /USA
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Interesting discussion.

My biggest single concern, other than somehow absorbing the trillions of dollars of bailouts, "quantitative easing", etc, is that the financial services industry (which is much bigger than just the US traditional retail banking industry) has taken control of both the politicians (at least in the US) and the regulators. Thus, we now have greatly reduced regulations (in the US since about 1990 when savings depository banks were allowed to expand to also be investment banks, leading to the now widespread concept of a "universal bank"). As a result, we have socialized the risks, while maintaining privatized and unlimited profits/bonuses/salaries.

It doesn't have to be this way. To continue a bit with a comparison to the airline industry, it's as if an airline could both charge passengers for tickets to flights AND make money from betting that crashes will occur, where all the costs of the crashes will fully be paid by the taxpayer/citizen.

Goldman Sachs for example, was simultaneously conspiring with a hedge fund owner to sell investment vehicles based on low-quality mortgages while betting against the same financial instruments. Thus, they made money selling low-quality mortgage debt instruments to the market AND on the inevitable market crash. The only thing they can't make much money on is market stability. Utility banking, which is what we really need, is much too stable for the investment banking industry.

I don't personally think there is an accurate analogy between the airline industry and the banking industry. The airline industry doesn't make money betting against the safe arrival of its airliners. Nor do the knowingly sell tickets on airliners they very well know will likely crash. The investment banking industry has full taxpayer bailout insurance without cost, and makes money both selling bad mortgage loans to customers while also making money betting (through various financial instruments) against the same customers' investments. It's not a case of banking industry technicians making mistakes. It's an out-of-control, corrupt mess. The laws (at least in the US and apparently Europe too) were not designed to cope with such a situation, and the industries systematically and knowingly borrowed without meaningful consideration of the leverage ratios, etc.

I think another consideration is the use of various forms of "insurance" that the financial services industry came to sell. One could hedge one's debts or other potential business losses for a modest expense, often based on poorly regulated rating agency findings. Unfortunately, it turned out that the rating agency services and ratings were paid for by the institution who was selling the bad debt or whatever. Thus, the bad debt seller would simply shop around for the highest rating, and such ratings became easy to purchase without much consideration for their accuracy.

In the US, traditional insurance companies are highly regulated, based on bad historical experiences where insurance companies held inadequate reserves against potential losses. The same thing will be needed to make sure that future investment hedges/insurances have more than adequate reserves, including the probably inevitable 25 or more percent market crashes, etc. Unlike ordinary house or car insurance, there is the very likely possibility that things like market crashes, market bubbles, etc, will take many or most investment vehicles down at once. As best I can understand, this is a big part of how AIG, a HUGE global insurance company, suddenly went bankrupt. For various political reasons, the government decided to let AIG crash and burn, thus putting the whole worldwide market system at risk.

"Too big or too systemically important to fail" then took on new meaning and the US and much of the world became a bailout nation on a very large scale. Now we have no obvious way to

IMO, this is a hopelessly conflicted situation and until and unless the major countries' politicians somehow take charge of repairing this crisis and of necessity revert to the previous much less conflicted financial services system, we have no obvious way to restore the world's economies to a stable equilibrium with adequate growth. The trillions of dollars used for these bailouts, etc, has to come from somewhere, and the banksters aren't volunteering to pick up the tab. Why should they assume the costs of their very risky investment patterns if the government implicitly *must* bail them out when their speculative bubbles inevitably burst?

I gather that many EU countries' banking systems are quite different from the US and perhaps UK situations in that they have traditionally had "universal" banks, where most or all types of financial services are provided. In the US, as others have mentioned, we legally separated savings deposit and house mortgage banking from investment banking. I am not 100% clear on all the details, but one a bank previously was not allowed to sell stocks, etc, to consumers or others. Other financial institutions were generally allowed to buy and sell stocks and bonds, etc, on the wholesale or retail markets. This worked to prevent many types of crisis, but the US still had the "savings and loan" crisis, again based on housing/mortgage speculation, at least partly subsidized by US government agencies.

Another point of concern is that government regulatory agencies simply cannot pay the huge salaries and bonuses for their staff that the regulatied companies can and do pay. Thus, most employees of government regulatory agencies simply are not as educated or as talented as the (regulated) staff of the big investment banks. No way can these agencies effectively regulate the industry - just look at the situation with Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme based company. Even outright illegal fraud was practical to hide from the SEC (US regulatory agency) for many years.

The only solution I can see is radical simplification of the financial services industry. Very little of the "innovation" this industry has provided is socially beneficial. Other than ATM machines and simple house mortgages, their innovations have mostly been beneficial to the financial services businesses and their top management, not to society.

We need a banking industry but not a large, massively government-subsidized, government-insured casino.
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Best wishes,

Phil Bunch
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Maybe somebody can leak interesting internal documents from the financial world? That could shed some light on the situation.
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One reason Americans let the bankers get away with this is that we like to project ourselves onto rich people's identities, and feel that if we were a super-rich banker, we'd want to pull the levers of power in our favor too. In the USA you hear this message of upwardly mobile prosperity throughout your life: "you can be anything you want to be, with hard work and perseverance." So we tend to internalize that message, and vote not according to what's in the best interest of out current economic class; instead, we vote in the best interest of the class to which we aspire. Hence millions of hourly-wage middle (or lower middle) class workers who happily vote for continuing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and for the repeal of the estate tax, while also voting against things that would affect them directly, such as enhanced workplace safety regulations or a hike in the minimum wage.

Even the populist rage against bankers' bonuses was muted, and instead the real "villain" of the financial crisis was federal government, for enacting the stimulus package that probably saved us all.
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Will /Chicago /USA
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Ow, this is a new one, Will. Never saw this reasoning before. It sounds both silly and very convincing...
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The companion argument that holds a lot of traction is this: "taking away our freedoms is bad." The economic elite can spin any limitations on their behavior into an attack on freedom, and then even blue-collar workers will vote against it.

Limiting banker's bonuses = "attack on our freedom" --> therefore must be opposed.
Government regulation of finance = "attack on our freedom" --> therefore must be opposed.

When "attack on our freedom" conflicts with what's in our economic best interest, "attack on our freedom" wins because it's the most emotionally salient argument. I suspect the rationalization goes like this: "I don't want enhanced workplace safety regulation, even if it would make me safer, because it's an 'attack on our freedom,' and if we allow that, then we will become a socialist country where nobody has any freedom."
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Will /Chicago /USA
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Well yes, it's hard to discuss against this kind of arguments.

If freedom is explained as the freedom to be really stupid and suffer, and the freedom to have bad luck and suffer, and the freedom to fall ill and suffer, where "suffer" is considerably worse than a civilised society should tolerate, it all stops.

As you probably know, "freedom of speech" is increasingly used to defend that needlessly insulting people and groups of people is an entitlement. If you have an opinion, voicing it unmoderated without thinking of the consequences becomes a right. "I know it is true, so I have the right to tell you that you are XXXX, and if you don't accept that, you violate my most fundamental rights." What happened to ratio?


Jeroen
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I've seen a shift in political discourse in the USA over the last 20 years. Political discussion used to be more civil, and often took place in print. Now most people get their politics from commercial TV and radio, which has to be increasingly dramatic to capture and maintain market share. The result is that the "other side" is frequently portrayed as "enemies of America," and politics is described in terms of a winner-takes-all fight for the basic survival of our country. Angry people tune in to TV and radio to see their anger mirrored. Voices of moderation and calm are either ignored or (increasingly) ridiculed.

This trend started long before the current economic troubles, and it's not limited to the right or left. However, what does seem to have changed is that the political center of the populist movement has drifted significantly farther right than in past years.

(Edit: fixed a typo.)
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Will /Chicago /USA
« Last edit by Will on Mon, 29 Nov 2010 20:34:52 +0000. »
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I tend to believe that current politics favour ruthless simplification over accepting that some issues in life and society are fundamentally complex. Complex issues need careful thought, and often study, so handling these issues is best left to specialists. This is in contrast with the "populist" thinking that all politics should be handled by John Doe in the street. I am not in favour of an elitist government, but I'd rather have trained pilots at the helm than just somebody. And no, politicians are not necessarily trained specialists in their field of power.

People's representatives should not just reflect the people's opinion. It is their duty to also add specialist insight to the opinion, and function as enlightened representatives of a part of society -- not of individual people.

In a true democracy, there would be no taxes and no regulations, as nobody would vote directly for anything that wasn't in his/her immediate interest today.


Jeroen
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I agree about the "ruthless simplification," and in fact, that's a great quote. I don't think the current politics demand it, although they certainly leverage it. Who demands it is the commercial media, who sell more advertising when the political shows are full of partisan rancor and us-versus-the-enemy vitriol. This is really only possible when the issues are reduced to simple ideas and slogans. Any channel that switches to showing the complexity of the situation will lose viewers in droves... or worse, find itself accused of an elitist bias, which in America is toxic.
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Will /Chicago /USA

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