Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2008 / 15 Tishrei 5769
Prescience on greed, arrogance of a system
By Michael Smerconish
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | When it comes to the economy, the real straight talk is being offered by John C. Bogle, founder and former CEO of the Vanguard Group Inc., the second-largest mutual fund company in the United States.
The title comes from a conversation between writers Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller during a billionaire's party on Shelter Island. At one point, Bogle told me, Vonnegut pointed to the host and asked Heller: "Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel 'Catch-22' has earned in its entire history?"
"Yes," Heller responded, "but I have something he will never have: Enough."
Bogle is a rarity - a true captain of industry who speaks about complex economic issues in a language comprehensible to the layperson. He's also prescient. On the second page of the introduction to a book he penned long before the current crisis, he offers this:
"We see the excesses most starkly in the continuing crisis - that is not an extreme description - in our overleveraged, overly speculative banking and investment industries, and even in our two mortgage lenders, to say nothing of the billion-dollar-plus annual paychecks that top hedge fund managers draw down and the obscene (there is no other word for it) compensation paid to the chief executive officers of our nation's publicly held corporations - including failed CEOs, often even as they are being pushed out the door."
His is the kind of candor that's been missing everywhere from Washington to Wall Street over these last few weeks. And he offers it free of partisan rancor. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., treats the floor of the Congress like it's the Democratic National Convention and the GOP House leadership responds with sophomoric rebukes, Bogle calls them as he sees them. And what he mostly sees is an economy that has lost its bearings.
Bogle recently told me that the inner workings of our nation's financial system have become too complicated. They are too driven by profits and not anchored by value. There was too much speculation and not enough investment, too much complexity without enough simplicity.
"We just got overwhelmed with greed, with creating financial instruments - not that benefit the investors in those instruments, but benefit the purveyors, the marketers, the investment bankers, the bankers. They got immensely rich selling junk to other bankers, as well as to the public," he said.
"Complexity costs a lot of money. And our financial system was taking approximately $650 billion out of the pockets of Americans every year. That's how much we pay for our financial services."
In his book, Bogle is quick to criticize the enormous earnings of industry chieftains such as Bear Stearns CEO James E. Cayne, who made $232 million between 1993 and 2006. But that payout is a manifestation of a more widespread problem.
"Greed is not confined to the financial markets, it just finds its worst manifestation there," he told me. "Our society has changed. It's kind of a 'me' society, a 'more' society, an egocentric society, an arrogant society in many, many ways. And not the entire society. I want to be very clear on this: There are huge segments of American society that aren't affected. This is the upper crest."
Bogle cites "a tremendous rollback of government responsibility" throughout the Bush administration and says the Securities and Exchange Commission and Federal Reserve haven't been as discerning as they should have been.
When prodded, Bogle rated the presidential candidates' response to the mess.
"I'll give McCain the benefit of the doubt and say, when he said the fundamentals of the economy were sound ... that probably was the stupidest statement of 2008. The fundamentals of this economy are not sound."
What he has heard from the Obama camp, Bogle told me, is more on track.
"We have too much of a money-centered economy, too much of a property-centered economy, not enough of a value-centered economy," he said, "and Wall Street and our bankers are taking an outrageous share of our national product."
Bogle said he wished President Bush had confronted the greed so entrenched on Wall Street long ago. Now, he said, we need a "czar" to look over the situation - someone above Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and the White House.
I can think of a man for the job: the author of "Enough."
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