Thursday, November 18, 2010

In Defense of Actual Reality (as opposed to financial numbers)

Today, a chunk of General Motors shares are going on sale at $33 a piece, which should allow GM to pay back billions of dollars to the Federal Government and cut the government's ownership share to 26 from a previous 61 percent. Good economic news for once.

Which may be why yesterday Warren Buffet issued a thank you note to Uncle Sam, giving credit to the Feds for helping rescue the U.S. (and world) economy from possible collapse. We usually complain about government, but Buffet points out that both the Bush and Obama administrations have done a lot to keep banks and businesses alive. Meanwhile, the citizenry thanked the incumbent regime by electing the Tea Party.

But the supposed good news about GM also prompted author Paul Clemens, a Detroit resident and former autoworker, to reflect on the difference between actual reality and the numbers games of financiers, in a piece on today's New York Times Op-Ed page. As part of the bankruptcy restructuring, a part of GM was shunted off into an "old GM," which is designed to sell off old assets, i.e., the many plants that are being shuttered forever--or being dismantled.

Like Michael Moore, who will forever be saddened about GM's abandoning Flint, Clemens is troubled by the abandonment of Detroit. (Full disclosure: Like Clemens, I was born in the Detroit area and grew up in Michigan during the 1970s and 80s, so I feel deeply for communities devastated by the loss of car manufacturing plants.)

I encourage you to read the whole piece, but the concluding paragraphs capture Clemens' main theme in a powerful way (I'll underline the best part):
ACROSS the nation, as in Detroit, there is an economic disconnect, a split between what the economic numbers say and how things feel on the ground. The economy is growing, but the unemployment rate hasn’t budged. The recession officially ended in June 2009, but more jobs have been lost than have been added since that “ending.”
Handling this disconnect requires political acuity. It brings to mind something Philip Roth once said about those who have little feel for literature and the texture of lived experience it provides and so “theorize” it. Mr. Roth imagined a scene of a father giving his son this advice while attending a baseball game: “Now, what I want you to do is watch the scoreboard. Stop watching the field. Just watch what happens when the numbers change on the scoreboard. Isn’t that great?” Then Mr. Roth asks: “Is that politicizing the baseball game? Is that theorizing the baseball game? No, it’s having not the foggiest idea in the world what baseball is.”
It’ll be fun, for a day or two, to look at the scoreboard, and to see what G.M.’s shares are going for: $26? $29? $33? $35? The numbers on the exchange will change; it’ll be great, and a welcome, temporary relief from the numbers, still difficult to comprehend, of jobs lost and plants closed. Soon enough, though, we’ll have to go back to watching what’s actually happening on the field, where there’s still a blowout in progress, with the home team way behind, and no one, seemingly, with the foggiest idea what to do about it.
Like Clemens, I want to defend those of us who live on the ground, in actual material reality, next door to car plants, on the field, playing the game--as opposed to the financiers who think that their numbers games are more real. (Chapter 3 of the book attempts to make this case.) A purely quantitative analysis of society is like "having the not the foggiest idea in the world" what social life is.

The Pontiac dealership just down the road from me is now closed (due to GM's restructuring plan). Should I celebrate today?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Mortgage Mess: Worse Than We Thought

It turns out that using mortgages as collateral to back bonds sold globally was a bad idea. Financiers sold mortgage-backed securities as lucrative, risk-free investment vehicles. It was supposed to be a win-win for everyone.

But now it appears that these wonderful new financial products could undermine a large chunk of the U.S. housing market. A new report issued today by the Congressional Oversight Panel that oversees the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP bailout) suggests that the electronic mortgage-processing systems at the heart of this mess may call into question 33 million mortgage loans. Oops, sorry about that.

In an earlier post, I summarized an article by Professor Christopher Peterson of the University of Utah Law School. His analysis now sounds cautious. The new Congressional Oversight Panel report suggests that our entire financial system might be undermined: 
Clear and uncontested property rights are the foundation of the housing market. If these rights fall into question, that foundation could collapse. Borrowers may be unable to determine whether they are sending their monthly payments to the right people. Judges may block any effort to foreclose, even in cases where borrowers have failed to make regular payments. Multiple banks may attempt to foreclose upon the same property. Borrowers who have already suffered foreclosure may seek to regain title to their homes and force any new owners to move out. Would-be buyers and sellers could find themselves in limbo, unable to know with any certainty whether they can safely buy or sell a home. If such problems were to arise on a large scale, the housing market could experience even greater disruptions than have already occurred, resulting in significant harm to major financial institutions (COP "November Oversight Report," p. 5).
Oops, sorry about that. It really does come down to who owns the promissory note in your mortgage. Unfortunately, for 33 million people the answer to that question is not clear.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Did American TV Bring Down Communism?

"J.R. Ewing Shot Down Communism in Estonia." This is the arresting headline of a film review by Stephen Holden in this morning's New York Times, of an Estonian documentary entitled Disco and Atomic War.

As this cute five-minute trailer for the film shows, Estonia is about 70 miles south of Finland--close enough to pick up broadcast TV signals of Finnish television. Like many Americans in the early 1980s, Finns in Helsinki were captivated by the TV show Dallas and the exploits of its main character, J.R. Ewing (right). So, too, were the Estonians who could pick up the signal from Finland on their rooftop antennas. 

Estonia was then under Soviet control, and Communist authorities wasted no time in trying to crack down on this infestation of Western propaganda. Obviously, they failed. Images of decadence and material abundance--the giant mansions of rich oil tycoons, their fancy cars, their well-coiffed wives, the warmth of sunny Texas--enticed the Estonians in their bleak Communist world.

I noted in a previous post about basketball in Turkey that we should recognize the power of compelling images to capture the imaginations and desires of viewers. For example, while Dallas never quite captured my imagination, I will confess that Knight Rider, another show of the era, did . . . for a few weeks, anyway.

I worry, as a former TV junkie, that advertising, television, and movies are a powerful force of cultural globalization--at times, more powerful than the church (see chapter 10 of the book). 

But I also think that the challenge for the church is not to make the message of the full gospel (in all of its complexity) more compelling than the attractions of a souped-up, black TransAm (at least to a middle-school boy in the early 1980s). That would be allowing popular culture to dictate the terms of success. It would be a bit like trying to create worship services that compete with rock concerts to grab the attention of bored youth. (Oh, wait, lots of churches are doing that!)

Rather, the challenge is to keep presenting the message with integrity, in the confidence that the Holy Spirit takes our frail efforts to communicate and makes them truly universal. Of course, we should try to speak to the felt needs within all segments of our culture, but let's not worry too much about current fads in entertainment. 

After all, I cringe when I see old Knight Rider videos today. And all of us who ever watched Dallas cringe when someone alludes to the "who shot J.R." season-ending cliffhanger. Pop culture gets stale and cheesy very quickly. 

We should always communicate in ways that capture the imagination and orient it toward the Kingdom, trusting that this Kingdom will endure, while cheesy 1980s TV shows will fade away.