James Quinn, a senior director of strategic planning at The Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania, describes the roots of the financial crisis in America. Excerpts below.
As a Baby Boomer, this is bitter medicine, but I can't dispute his reasoning and evidence.
The Baby Boom Generation will never be mistaken for the Greatest Generation that survived the Great Depression and defeated evil in a World War that killed 72 million people. I hate to tell you Boomers, but putting a yellow ribbon on the back of your $50,000 SUV is not sacrifice. Our claim to fame is living way beyond our means for the last three decades, to the point where we have virtually bankrupted our capitalist system. Baby Boomers have been occupying the White House for the last sixteen years. The majority of Congress is Baby Boomers. The CEOs and top executives of Wall Street firms are Baby Boomers. The media is dominated by Baby Boom executives and on-air stars. We have no one to blame but ourselves for the current predicament. Blaming Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson for our dire situation is a cop out. Baby Boomers had the time, power, and ability to change our course. We have chosen to leave the heavy lifting to future generations in order to live the good life today.
Of course, not all Baby Boomers are shallow, greedy, and corrupt. Mostly Boomers with power and wealth fall into this category. There were 76 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1963. They now make up 28% of the U.S. population. Their impact on America is undeniable. The defining events of their generation have been the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, Kent State, Woodstock, the 1st man on the moon, and now the collapse of our Ponzi scheme financial system. They rebelled against their parents, protested the Vietnam War, and settled down in 2,300 square foot cookie cutter McMansions with perfectly manicured lawns, in mall infested suburbia. They have raised overscheduled spoiled children, moved up the corporate ladder by pushing paper rather than making things, lived above their means in order to keep up with their neighbors, bought whatever they wanted using debt, and never worried about the future. Over optimism, unrealistic assumptions, selfishness and conspicuous consumption have been their defining characteristics.
When I see “poor” people appearing to live a more luxurious life than myself, I don’t feel jealous. The thought that goes through my head is: Which banks or finance companies were foolish enough to loan these people the money to live this lifestyle? These foolish financial institutions will never get their loans repaid. What does bother me is that the Bush-Paulson-Pelosi Bailout of Stupid Banks will use my taxes to buy these bad loans from the foolish banks. So, who is the fool in this scenario? The “poor” person got to drive a Cadillac Escalade for a period of time, the foolish banks got bailed out, the bank CEOs took home $30 million, and I lived within my means and footed the bill for the reckless actions of others. It appears that the fools are the Americans who lived their lives according to the rules. The anger is building. I don’t think the politicians running this country realize what true anger looks like. They are used to Americans being herded along like passive sheep.
I’ve heard many Republican ideologues blame the current crisis on the people who took the subprime loans for home purchases. I’ve also heard many Democratic ideologues blame the crisis on the regulators. The ideologues are wrong, as usual. If a poor person has no home, no vehicle, and no prospects; then a bank tells them that they can buy a $300,000 home, drive a $55,000 Mercedes SUV, and live like people on TV; why wouldn’t they say yes? What is their downside? If you have nothing and “The Man” offers you the American dream, you’d actually be foolish to say no. Now that they have lost the home in foreclosure and the repo man has taken the Mercedes, they are exactly where they were a few years ago with no home, no vehicle and no prospects.
The regulators were certainly asleep at the wheel. They did not enforce existing rules, foolishly waived leverage rules for the biggest investment banks, and believed that the banks would regulate themselves. They were wrong, but they never made a single loan. The commercial banks, investment banks, auto finance companies, and credit card companies made the ridiculous loans to people who could never pay them back in the search for short term profits. Greedy Wall Street executives created an artificial market for the loans in order to generate billions in fees so they could enrich themselves through stock options and obscene bonuses. They spent their false riches on $2 million NYC penthouses, $100,000 Porsche 911s, and $5 million beachfront estates in the Hamptons. Based on the estimated $2 trillion of losses that our banks have generated, the CEOs certainly deserved annual pay 500 times as high as the average worker. There is no way an “average” worker could possibly be talented enough to lose $2 trillion. You would need to be truly extraordinary to lose that much.
The brutal necessary lesson that should have been learned is that if you loan money to people who can’t pay you back, your bank will go bankrupt. The “poor” people who made a bad decision in buying homes and cars they couldn’t afford have lost those homes and cars. The banks made a bad business decision in making those loans. The taxpayer was not involved in these business transactions. This is where Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke and George Bush, formerly free market capitalists, decided to commit our grandchildren’s money to bailing out the horribly run financial institutions. Our government has chosen to allow these banks off the hook for their bad business decisions at the expense of taxpayers. Rewarding bad decisions and bad behavior will lead to more bad decisions and more bad behavior. The government has made a dreadful decision that will haunt our country for generations. Now the Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates to 1% again. This is where this horrible nightmare started. The massive printing of currency throughout the world will ultimately lead to a hyperinflationary bust. The law of unintended consequences can be devastating.
…Boomer … spend more eating out than we give to charity. We spend as much on big screen TVs and stereos as we do on education. This may explain why 37 million (12.5%) of all Americans live in poverty and our high school students trail the students of 25 other countries (including Latvia) in science and math knowledge. Our school system processes many more clueless morons who don’t know the candidates for President, versus intelligent, thoughtful, hard working, driven young people. The $160 billion spent on gambling is indicative of the get rich quick without hard work attitude of the Boomer generation. Even worse, households with income under $13,000 spend, on average, $645 a year on lottery tickets, about 9 percent of all their income. Our government feeds this addiction by siphoning off billions in taxes from these gambling revenues to redistribute as they see fit.
What the data proves is that Boomers love to shop and eat, whether they have the money or not. The top 100 retailers in the U.S. have 250,000 stores that generated $1.7 trillion of sales last year. How could America function without 31,000 McDonalds, 35,000 KFCs, Taco Bells, & Pizza Huts, 15,000 Starbucks, 7,000 Wal-Marts, 2,000 Home Depots, 4,000 K-Marts/Sears, and 8,000 Blockbusters? There are 91,000 shopping centers in the United States. The Advertising industry spends $275 billion per year to convince you to spend money you don’t have for things you don’t need. This generation lacks self control, morals, a work ethic, and savings ethic. Based on the recent actions of our government and corporate leaders, we seem to lack any ethics at all. It is immoral for the boomer generation to run up $53 trillion in unfunded future liabilities in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to leave as our gift to future generations, while we live it up today. Optimists like to point out that Europe and Japan have much worse unfunded liability problems than the U.S. That is like taking pride in being the best looking horse at the glue factory. In the end, we’ll all still be glue.
The 25 year Boomer borrowing and spending binge is coming to an end. The hangover will be really bad. The Federal Reserve and Treasury are trying to keep the frat party going, but everyone is passed out on the floor. The Case Shiller housing data shows that the 20 largest cities have experienced an average 20% decline in price from their peaks. The futures index predicts a further 10% to 15% loss in value. There are 75 million owned homes in the U.S. One in six, or 12 million homeowners, owe more than the house is worth. With further expected losses, 20 million homeowners will eventually be underwater on their mortgage. In California, where home price declines will be 40% to 50%, half the homeowners in the State will owe more than the house is worth. If you are one of these homeowners and can afford the mortgage payment, time will eventually bail you out. If you can’t afford the mortgage payment, you should lose the house to someone who can make the payment. This is the failure side of the creative destruction that is true capitalism. If the government steps in to subsidize and eliminate failure, the system will ultimately collapse.
The last six months have been a perfect example of laggardship. Our leaders have floundered from crisis to crisis, overreacting and blustering rather than leading. True leaders are proactive, not reactive. After not addressing our energy policy for decades, as soon as oil reached $140 a barrel, Congress lurched into action so their constituents would think they were leading. As our financial system has imploded, government “leaders” have flailed about with one rescue package after another and Congress looks for scapegoats. Meddling, tinkering, and non-enforcement of rules by Congress and other government bureaucracies caused the crisis that they are reacting to. Government creates the problems and then assumes even more power over our lives with their ridiculous “solutions”.
No one in Washington has shown an ounce of leadership in decades. True leadership requires strength of character, clear vision to see the future as it is, the bravery to make unpopular decisions, and the honesty to tell the public the unvarnished truth based on the facts.
David Walker lays out our dilemma:
“The regular order in Washington is broken. We must move beyond crisis management approaches and start to address some of the key fiscal and other challenges facing this country if we want our future to be better than our past. Our fiscal time bomb is ticking, and the time for action is now!”
Ultimately, it is up to the Baby Boom generation to change our country’s course. The oldest Boomer is 62 years old and the youngest 45 years old. It is time for Boomers to take a hard look in the mirror and rethink their priorities. It is time to cast aside the $88,000 Range Rovers, $1,200 Jimmy Choo boots, $5,000 Rolex watches and daily double lattes at Starbucks. It is time to live within your means, distinguish between needs and wants, reduce debt, save 10% of your income, make sure your kids get a good education, not try and keep up with the Jones’, show compassion for your fellow man, and possibly pay more taxes and get less benefits, for the good of the country. We must support true leaders like David Walker and get rid of the old time corrupted politicians who want to keep the status quo. Texas Congressman Ron Paul gives the blunt truth that a true leader is willing to give:
“Our government has lived beyond its means for decades. We now face a crucial juncture, at which we determine whether to continue down the path of debt, inflation, and government intervention or choose to return to the economics of the free market, which have been ignored for almost a century. Increased debt leads to higher taxes on future generations, while increased inflation diminishes the purchasing power of American families and destroys the dollar. No society has ever been achieved prosperity through indebtedness or inflation, and the United States is no exception. We cannot afford to continue our current policies of monetary expansion and unending bailouts. Unless we return to sound monetary policy, sharply reduce government expenditures, and realize that the government cannot act as a lender of last resort, we will drive our economy to ruin.”
The Baby Boom generation has one last chance to change the course of U.S. history, keep us from wrecking in a storm of debt on the approaching jagged reef and shed the title of “Shallowest Generation”.