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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Too big to fail

Altgeld Hall, Northern Illinois University. It is on the east side of the campus. As you ambulate in a westerly direction the campus gets uglier, until it reaches a crescendo of hideousity on its far western fringe.In 1985 I left "Hawaii" after living there for two years. It was a great experience living in "Hawaii," but it wasn't home. I found out that there was an extension of the Illinois veterans scholarship for thirty credits at state schools, and after spending most of a year working in Madison, I began graduate school at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

My intention was to earn a teaching certificate. With my background in Economics, I could become qualified to teach social studies, either in the upper-grades or in high school.

Because I already had an undergraduate degree, I had to take all my classes at the graduate level. I didn't mind. I applied for entry to the master's program in Educational Psychology, since it was the nearest major to the courses I was taking. Because of one professor, a sub-major of sorts, or area of concentration, in Transpersonal Psychology was available. It's an unfortunate name, but the field is focused on states of consciousness beyond the personal, or ego-centered states the vast majority of us find ourselves trapped in as we travel through our earthly existence.

I ended up not getting the teaching certificate. I was in the process of setting up my student teaching semester, and bought what I thought was a decent car from a friend. The friend warned me about the car, but I believed otherwise. In the hottest part of the heat wave of 1988 I drove, or attempted to drive, to the school where I was supposed to student teach, for an interview.

Graduation day, May 13, 1989, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois. With me is my great friend Toon, a classmate from “Thailand.”I didn't make it to the interview. The car threw a piston on the highway, and that was the end of that. I went back to DeKalb and finished my master's degree, which was not worth much. Employment in the field of Educational Psychology is mostly at the doctoral level. I could have found work in test development, but knew I would last about three days doing that kind of work.

It was not time and effort wasted, though. I learned a lot, and the knowledge and experience has been of immense value as I try to make sense of the times in which we live.

A perfect example is today. I awoke with a plan to record the rerun of the final show of Bill Moyers Journal, and to write a blog post about something that was festering.

Carl Gustav JungThe festering topic wasn't meant to be written. As Carl Gustav Jung would say, meaningful coincididences intervened. Jung is the most prominent early inspiration in the development of the field of Transpersonal Psychology. He introduced the idea of synchronicity, the occurrence of two or more causally unrelated events that are experienced in a meaningful way. Another term for this is meaningful coincidence.

I turned the TV on earlier than the Moyers show was scheduled to start, wanting to finesse my failing memory. A program called MoneyTrack was on, and today's segment covered the banking crisis. Economist Simon Johnson was being interviewed, and among the things he said was if a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.

The idea of too big to fail has been around for a while, but gained new significance in the government "bailout" of the megabanks in 2008. The law authorizing the bailout, titled the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, was enacted to authorize the Treasury to spend up to $700 billion to purchase troubled assets of big banks, especially mortgage backed securities that were bundles of worthless sub-prime loans.

I wished I had recorded the segment, but continued in my morning of information gathering. My favorite show on Wisconsin Public Radio, To the best of our knowledge, began at 9:00 a.m., and I listened to it. The program presents interviews with various authors, researchers, writers and activists on various topics. Today's topic was titled Sacred Nature, and one of the featured interviewees was environmental writer Bill McKibben, who talked about his new book Eaarth. At one point McKibben said that when a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. I took note.

After the radio program ended I returned my attention to the TV, and made sure I didn't miss the Moyers show. In one of the segments Moyers interviewed former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. Calling himself "America's number one populist," Hightower advocates grass roots organizing against corporate control of our lives. At one point he said that when banks are too big to fail, they are too big to exist.

During the time I was a guru disciple it was said that when you receive a message three times, it is a real message. I don't know if this is true or not, but I knew I had to write about the too big to fail phenomenon.

What Johnson, McKibben, and Hightower all were saying is that the big banks have to be broken up into smaller entities, more manageable, closer to individual customers, and less likely to engage in illegal and unethical activities. They would be less likely to have influence over Congress, with a lower capacity to bribe.

This graph shows the progression, or regression, of returns to scale when a firm or even industry increases its scale of operationsIn Economics there is a principle known as increasing returns to scale, or economies of scale. It means that there are cost savings that accrue as business entities, known in the jargon as firms, get larger. At some point the cost savings reach a maximum, and then, as the individual firm gets larger, costs incrementally increase. This is known as decresing returns to scale, or "diseconomies" of scale.

This is the kind of stuff I used to study to great levels of absurdityThat's the theoretical construct, or at least one of them. Another is the inefficiency of monopoly power, resulting in higher prices of goods and services, stifling of competition, and lower output. The net result of monopoly is a lower level of overall economic well-being.

There isn't much talk in theoretical Economics about criminality, but that was the, er, prime factor in the banking collapse. Maybe an enterprising economist somewhere could come up with a theory of the diseconomies of mass criminality. How about Steven Levitt?

As I was pondering the concept of too big to fail, I wondered about other situations where the term would apply. If the solution to banks being too big to fail is breaking them up, what about other industries? Are the drug companies too big to fail? Are the insurance companies too big to fail? Are the agribusiness conglomerates, like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland? How about General Electric, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and other "defense" contractors? Are they too big to fail?

Is British Petroleum (BP) too big to fail? Maybe, but they seem to have suffered a recent failure. How about Massey Energy? It was too big to fail until its negligence caused the worst mine disaster in twenty five years.

There are many other possibilities of too big to fail. All you have to do is think of something big. If the weapons manufacturers, for example, are too big to fail, maybe the "Defense Department" is also too big to fail. Its estimated budget for this year is $1.223 trillion. With a budget like that, failure in two "wars" is a tad unthinkable.

What do you do when you're too big to fail? For the "Defense" establishment, how about another war? Erstwhile presidential candidate John McCain sang "Bomb Iran" a while back. It likely wasn't a "Freudian slip." Maybe it was a Jungian slip.

Going beyond even the "Defense" mega-establishment, which Dwight Eisenhower called the military industrial complex, maybe the "U.S." is too big to fail. "China," for sure. "Japan," "Germany," "France," "Great Britain," "Canada," "Mexico," and, perhaps most notoriously, "Greece."

"Russia" deserves its own special mention for too big to fail. It used to be the linchpin of the "Soviet Union," which had its own experience of being too big to fail. It failed.

Send him to another parishMaybe the "Catholic" Church is too big to fail.

Melting at the northern Polar ice capThis is no idle exercise. We have a government that is controlled by "Wall Street," large corporations, and the "defense" establishment. They are all too big to fail, and this conditon means that all other priorities are subsumed under the need to keep them from failing. Given that the Polar ice caps are melting, but this dynamic is a lower priority than parasitic "Wall Street," the Polar ice caps will melt.

At what point, one must wonder, will the Polar ice caps be too big to fail? As things stand, not yet. Maybe next year. Or the year after. Or the year after. Don't hold your breath. There will be plenty of time for that.

The other interview on the Bill Moyers Journal, with writer Barry Lopez, is worth a read or listen.

To read more about NIU and DeKalb, click here.

Here's a bit of an update from CNN, some words of warning from Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Here's a bit of an update from Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone about the Goldman Sachs debacle.

This article from Truthout is a must read.

Here's another, from Greg Palast.

Here are some songs appropriate to the theme, one from Dave Mason, and another from Quicksilver Messenger Service. Here's one from Spirit. And this from the Grateful Dead. And, of course, Dylan. Here's a great song from the Talking Heads. This Neil Young song is pretty timeless. Here's a relic from the Broadway musical "Hair." This is my favorite Talking Heads song. This gem is from the Kinks (Here's the words and chords).Los Lobos gave us this treasure. Strange Boat, by the Waterboys. And this, from the Waterboys, a great song.

Here's another great song, from John Gorka. Here's the lyrics and chords.

This song has nothing to do with the theme, it's just my favorite Kinks song, a great rocker. Here's the chords and lyrics. This Waterboys song is also worth a listen. It's a cover of Van Morrison, but it stands on its own greatness.


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