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October 1, 2008 > Editorial: The silly season

Editorial: The silly season

The political "silly season" is upon us, manifesting in a multitude of ways. This is the time, just prior to elections, when politicians and those with an axe to grind surface; campaigns for political office begin to heat up. At all levels of government, a sudden interest in what will appeal to voters becomes paramount. This is no more evident than when a crisis of monumental proportions arises such as the financial collapse of Wall Street. The ensuing scramble to blame others on Capitol Hill is blatant and farcical, but not humorous.

Complacency and greed have been co-conspirators in the rush toward a financial precipice that is not only dangerous for business and personal stability, but threatens the foundation of our capitalistic system. We can argue about the extent to which the free market should reign, but it is difficult to deny the worldwide influence of the U.S. financial system. The extent of foreign investment in U.S. securities is a reminder that our economy is considered the bellwether for the world.

So what happened? The stock market has been mired in confusion and turmoil before, so why the fuss? The difference this time is that financial institutions that form the foundation of security and conservative investment have fallen into a speculative world where real and imagination merge with no clear identification of which is which. This is not supposed to happen to bankers and insurance moguls who spend their waking hours scrutinizing numbers, probabilities and balance sheets. Their mantra is thought to be that if it is not on the balance sheet, it doesn't exist.

Silicon Valley was treated to the same irrational thinking when "new economics" arrived with the advent of internet businesses. Investors were introduced to the idea of a virtual company that existed in cyberspace and could be founded and based on an idea without substance. Who needed assets and balance sheets? Who needed to make a profit? Those who made money investing in companies without portfolio were encouraged to continue this line of thought and ridiculed others mired in conservative investments making a mere low double digit return. Instant millionaires were created and business basics were left behind as greedy investors rushed to garner more and more profits. This continued just as a Ponzi scheme builds a larger and larger base of investment suckers until the cash flow cannot sustain inflated promises. By that time, the perpetrators have fled with the cash. Anyone living in the Bay Area within the last 10 years understands and recognizes the consequences of a massive pyramid scam - the dot com debacle.

Magnify and extend this situation to what are considered rock-solid institutions such as banks and insurance companies and what do you get? Most of us with a pulse can easily guess the answer. It is front and center on Wall Street today. The present situation is frustrating and aggravating for those who believe in a free market economy without interference as well as their opposite number who favor government controls of market behavior. Each group depends on a financial sector that conforms to its role of conservative stability and strength. In this case, irresponsible behavior has not only existed but eluded any controls confounding both camps. At this point, there is no longer time or room for philosophical debate; institutions that grease the wheels of commerce cannot be allowed to fail. Some claim it is best to destroy all vestiges of a faulty system; a new and better model can be built from the ashes. That may be a solution in a philosophical debate, but to sacrifice an entire economy to test this assumption is dangerous and risks tragic consequences for those throughout the world who followed the dictates of a system that lured them to societal icons. Misuse and misrepresentation by management should be punished, but fundamental concepts of investing should not be sacrificed as a result.

Elected representatives are responsible to their constituents but must also show leadership qualities as well. When difficult situations arise, these people are asked to examine and weigh the consequences of their actions in light of reason and calm deliberation. Emotional response without rational thought can lead to disaster for all, even those urging hasty and reactionary decisions. Just as the mantle of "incumbent" can be a cover for a stagnant and irresponsive status quo, it can also protect well-run and valuable iconic institutions. In all elections, it is the responsibility of the electorate to determine those that are hiding under the incumbent cloak and others who wear it proudly.

Many in congress are currently running from their responsibilities, blatantly pandering to emotions in their bid for reelection. While they may be successful in these pathetic manipulations, this is not the mark of a strong, representative and ultimately weakens the fabric of our society. At the local level, some of the same patterns can be seen. Elections can initiate change or encourage more of the same. Persuasive slogans and pretty signs cannot hide stagnant and irresponsive leadership. In some instances, it appears that incumbents believe that name recognition is enough to command voter respect. Mayoral and council candidates affect the proper prose and pose to suggest experience and continued confidence in their role. But do their arguments have substance? Incumbency is neither a disease nor a mandate. Some of those who desire an additional term as Mayor or Councilmember may be hard pressed to show many tangible results of their tenure.

A challenger's role is to raise questions and allow different ideas to invigorate the political process. However, voters need to discriminate between rhetoric and reality. When major institutions of local society are at stake, the choice is often critical to the local environment. Are arguments based on personal gain and antagonism or valid concerns that are integral to the health of an institution? Beware of those who wear a cloak of righteousness and pose as liberators.

A case in point is the election of board members of the Washington Township Healthcare District. Although valid criticism may be in order, some challengers are suspect in light of their credentials and tactics. It is disheartening to see a professional environment weakened by subterfuge. Those with legitimate grievances should air them in a sensible and objective manner rather than through false and misleading media presentations using front companies composed of family members. The film, Life for Sale, is a travesty that should not be tolerated or rewarded by our community. It may be that candidate Evelyn Li has a legitimate issue with the local medical community, but the behavior shown so far is well beyond the scope of rational dialogue. True representation should not be based on irresponsible or devious behavior.

As the "silly season" reaches a crescendo, voters are being asked to discern the true content of candidate character and understand that their decisions at the ballot box are anything but silly.

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