Saturday, October 22, 2011

High Finance is Hard Work

I'll admit that I'm not much of an expert on anything.  I make it a point of knowing enough about everything to understand the world around me, but I tend to not go overboard with it, and only get in-depth on subjects that I need to get in-depth on.  As long as I know more about something than the person I'm talking to, I probably know enough.

Sadly, that really isn't a very high standard, as most people haven't a damn clue what they're talking about.  And for people who know they don't know what they're talking about, that's fine.  People who lack the intellectual capacity to understand high finance or economics really shouldn't bother with these fields, as they're extremely complex; and even I, with my infinite capacity for knowledge, generally only know enough to know that I really don't know much about any of it.

For example, while I can easily follow the typical Paul Krugman column, I've read some of his real work and immediately recognize that I'm barely following along.  I get the concepts, but I doubt I'll be asked to teach a class on them any time soon. And while I'm a CPA and technically have the expertise to audit any bank on Wall Street, I would most assuredly turn down any such assignment as I'd be in waaaaay over my head.  That's why I keep things simple and only handle small business clients, so I can make sure I'm always the smartest guy in the room.

Don't Know Much About Anything

And what troubles me is how many people imagine themselves to be experts on these subjects, because they read a few websites by people who tell them what they want to hear, or watched a documentary that painted Wall Street as a bunch of thieves.  The guy I wrote about in my last post actually attacked me for having taken college classes on these subjects, as if that's somehow the mark of the Devil; sarcastically writing:

Well from your the brief CV, I see that you're the intended product of everything the US has come to expect from higher ed...McLuhan, Postman, et al, would concur.

Congrats on your education.
And while I don't know who McLuhan and Postman are, I can only imagine that wasn't a compliment.   Apparently, knowing what you're talking about is now proof that you don't know what you're talking about.  I guess anti-intellectualism isn't limited to the Republican Party.

Expertise in One Easy Step: Step One: Watch Movie

Meanwhile, I had another debate on that same thread with a guy who repeatedly insisted I was a "nitwit" because I refused to watch several documentaries that taught him that the banking and insurance industries are a Ponzi scheme, yet refused to explain what that meant.

As I pointed out, the victims of a Ponzi scheme are the investors, while the investors in the banks are the ones who were reaping the obscene profits he was upset about.  And Ponzi schemes don't really have profits, while banks are reaping huge profits.  In other words, this would be the opposite of a Ponzi scheme; where the investors make money fleecing the customers; not unlike many legitimate business models.  And yet, as much as he insulted me for saying this, he refused to explain why I was wrong unless I watched the documentary first.

He also insisted I needed to watch a documentary that covered the issue of businesses that buy insurance policies for their employees, with the business listed as the beneficiary.  And even after the employee stopped working there, the policy stayed in effect.  And this is something I read about years ago and was covered in Michael Moore's film Capitalism: A Love Story, which I found interesting, yet ultimately flawed, as Moore didn't seem to know much about how the banking industry worked either.

And yeah, it's ethically questionable for a business to do this sort of thing, and yet...where's the harm?  This is essentially a wager between a business and its insurer, and as long as the employer isn't murdering the employee, I fail to see how this has anything to do with them.  As calloused as this might sound, the employee is incidental to the wager, not a victim of it. 

And so I pointed that out, saying that I didn't see how this hurt the employees, and asked him to explain how I was wrong about that.  Yet he refused to explain this and insisted that I had to watch the movie before he'd discuss it.  So I told him I wouldn't watch the movie, because I think movies are a bad way of learning things, as they're hard to fact check or research.  And for this, he wrote "Of course not. So from the bottom of my heart I say, "GO FUCK YOURSELF!" ... I have wasted enough of my time with you. You are a nitwit, and intellectually corrupt."

Seriously.  I never insulted him.  I didn't use harsh language.  I merely told him that I wouldn't watch these movies and for him to explain his point or find me a website to read it at.  After all, if he feels so seriously about these issues, surely he can explain what the problem is.  But no, he continues to refuse to explain anything, and the longest explanation he gave during the whole debate is when he thought I was a conservative and lectured me about all the stuff Fox News doesn't cover.

And that's a big problem with many progressives, as they only know how to attack conservatives.  But if you're already on the left, accept the same facts they accept, and still refuse to agree with their baseless opinions; they freak out and resort to insults. 

Don't Know Shit About Shit

But of course, he couldn't explain any of this, because he didn't know what the problem is.  He watched these films because he was already upset at the financial system, and they filled him with rage against the machine.  He was angry and he wants us all to be angry.  Yet...he can't actually explain what he's angry about, because he doesn't know a damn thing about this stuff.

Why?  Because high finance and economics are sophisticated subjects that require years of study, and can't be taught in two hours on a movie screen.  I mean, I took three semesters of economics, two semesters of finance, loads of accounting classes, lots of real world experience, and I read articles about this stuff all the time; yet if I was brought into Goldman Sachs and told to make a lot of money with all their resources at my disposal, I wouldn't have a fucking clue where to start.

Seriously, you are NOT going to learn this stuff from a damn blogger.  Nor did your time spent reading Paul Krugman's columns against Bush prepare you to understand what's wrong with Wall Street.  And for god's sake, you will NOT learn this spending two hours watching a movie, no matter how angry it makes you.  I know it's not fun or sexy to say this, but these are TOUGH FUCKING SUBJECTS AND YOU PROBABLY DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT.

And what's so hard to understand about that?  Are we REALLY to imagine that Wall Street is as simple as a bunch of thieves conspiring to steal from our bank accounts, as many on the left assert?  Try going there and see how far you get.  More likely than not, you don't even know enough to get an internship as a gofer, not just because you don't kiss the right rings (though that certainly helps), but because they'd expose you as a know-nothing fraud in under a minute.

Wishful Conspiracies

And the point here isn't that we can just trust what these people are doing, as we obviously can't.  Wall Street has shown repeatedly that it loves to get high off its own supply, and there's no reason to think that trend won't continue.  Nor do we have to choose between accepting things the way they are or trash the whole system, as we already know how to deal with these problems, if only Republicans would step out of the way and let us do them.

The point is that this is complicated stuff, and if someone's giving you the impression that Wall Street just stole our money, then that someone doesn't know what they're talking about.  Yes, there are huge problems.  No, it's not as simple as basic theft.  And while it's our duty to get a working knowledge of how the system works, that shouldn't allow us to imagine that this is all there is to it.  You might know that Credit Default Swaps were used to screw things up, but that doesn't mean you really know what they are.

Because the problem isn't that there's some cabal that's screwing us over to steal our money.  That's the fantasyland scenario that implies that this is all a game and we're really always safe the whole time.  No, the reality is a whole lot fucking scarier: Nobody is in charge.  The bankers who almost brought our financial system down really almost brought our financial system down.  That wasn't a hoax.  They really believed they had discovered a new Fountain of Profits, and did some scary fucking stuff that really did require billions in bailouts to fix.

When America Was Vegas

There's this myth among many on the left that the banks were intentionally screwing us before the crash, engaging in risky practices for their own profits; while the rest of us got hurt.  But of course, this was a game we ALL played; or at least those of us who dabbled in home purchases.  I myself once used my home as an ATM, agreeing to an ARM because I knew I'd cash out before it came due.  It was a risk, and I knew what I was doing when I went into it; and it worked to my advantage.  In fact, millions of Americans profited from this system.

And that's the thing, the vast majority of people who bought homes during the boom knew they could have rented, but chose to buy a home at a higher price, because it was an investment.  Housing prices were going up and up and up, so it just made sense to get in on that.  It was free money for everyone.  And as long as the housing prices kept going up, it was a smart investment.

And that's exactly what the bankers thought, too.  They weren't tricking us. Or if they were, they were tricking themselves, too.  Because once the bubble popped, they were screwed too.  We were all in the same boat and anyone who's pretending as if the banks completely ripped us off has rewritten history.  Did they do bad things?  Yes.  Was there actual fraud involved?  In many cases, yes.  Was this a one-sided screwing that took us all by surprise?  No, that's just not what happened.

The Gamblers

And so, yes, Wall Street got bailed out and Main Street, didn't.  But of course, since the majority of taxes are paid by the rich because they have most of the income, it wasn't the middle class who paid for the bailouts.  It was the rich.  And the majority of that has already been paid back.  And if they knew the housing bubble was going to pop, they wouldn't have done what they did.

And that's just how it is.  No one group was fully responsible for this.  No one group profited from it.  And this most definitely wasn't a conspiracy by a Wall Street cabal so they could loan us money at high prices and foreclose on us at low prices.  That doesn't even make sense.

Seriously.  If a bank loans you $200k to buy a home and sells it as a foreclosure for $160k, they lost money.  And while they try to recoup that with hidden fees and deceptive practices, they still lost money.  And who got the $200k?  The previous homeowner, not the bank.  And if the previous owner bought that home for $160k, then he's the one who got the profits; not the bank.  That's where the money went.  And of course, nobody put a gun to anyone's head to buy these homes.  These were investments, and as we all know, investments can also depreciate in value.  The profits on all these homes weren't made by the banks, they were made by the sellers.  That's what made home flipping so damn popular.

And that's why we need to learn this stuff, because it really is too complicated even for the fat cats on Wall Street.  And so we need regulations to protect them from themselves.  These people really did almost bring our financial system to its knees, and it wasn't a conspiracy.  And the more people realize that, the more they'll realize the need to focus our attention where it will really make a difference: Washington.

We don't need to destroy the banking industry to save America.  We just need a Congress that will help save it from itself. And that means we need to get rid of as many Republicans as possible.

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