Thursday, January 30, 2014

Banners Over Wall Street

“…Forever let us hold our banners high, high, high…”
Opening theme to the Mickey Mouse Club show

“…Long may your proud banners gloriously wave...”
Scotland the Brave, an unofficial national anthem

(The Wall Street occupiers had) No banner to prevent the legion on the street from slowly fading, dimming, dwindling away with a whimper.
Sean Crawford

This morning as I was driving I heard two radio announcers, Mookie and Billy Jo, musing about who would carry the banner for our country at the Sochi Olympics. They said it was a great honor to carry the flag; therefore, they said, the flag bearer would be a great athlete, someone with a good shot at a medal.

As I drove I mused about banners without blood, and effective citizens.

Historically, banners have meant life or death. In ancient Rome, for example, every legion carried a standard with a golden eagle on top. In battle the eagle was held high as a symbol the legion was still a cohesive force, something larger than the individual soldiers involved. The comrades protected each other with their almost overlapping shields, sweating and bleeding, groaning and cursing, struggling for victory. With the banner high, courage was high. If the banner was lost, meaning: if mutual confidence in each other was lost, then the troops would falter, break formation and run for their lonely lives. Homer compared it to sheep being chased and slaughtered by a lion. The casualty ratio of victor to vanquished was always very lopsided.

A legion was a small society, and like any society it unconsciously adjusted: If the goal was success in battle, and if the job of holding up the banner was important, then “holding the banner high” would absolutely be seen as a great honor. For the US civil war it has become a cliché: During the confusion of swirling battle a freckle-faced boy holding the banner is shot—the banner being a prime target—then another idealist rushes to proudly hold the banner high. There is a terrible beauty to boy after boy being shot down, as they hold up the flag to protect the men they marched among. “Rally around the flag, boys.”

There will never be enough money to pay anyone to hold the flag, or to pay troops to go walking through the valley of death. All we can do, as a healthy society, one in which all of us support some of to go off to carry out our wishes, is to honor our armed representatives with a parade before they leave, and give them a heroes’ welcome when they come home, those who survive. …Or put it this way, as this is how armies in non-healthy non-democracies are behaving right now: Darth Vader might pay his men to slay, he can never pay them enough to offer themselves up to be slain.

We civilians have our banners too. In Britain the stylized royal L, for the pound; in America the initials US, superimposed on each other, for the dollar: These are the banners of confident currency. Today, as you know, each dollar is merely a concept, no longer backed by a piece of solid gold: Having gone off the gold standard, the US is relying on the public’s confidence the dollar is good, even as the exchange rate keeps fluctuating. We daren’t lose our confidence lest we set the lion loose.  

For example: Picture late 1929, near Christmas, and two adjacent competing banks. The first bank is very sound; the other, Jimmy Stewart’s, doesn’t keep enough reserves in the vault. As for the second bank, the word gets out, or rumors start, and people run to line up to get all their money out while they still can. Regrettably, the investors who panic “the first-est and the most-est,” like the very first soldiers to break and flee, are the ones who avoid the lion. When the bank goes bankrupt, the rest are sadly out of luck.

The story doesn’t end there: Since panic is unreasonable, investors don’t reason out how the adjacent bank is safe—they panic there too. A bank with ample reserves for bad investments can’t possibly contain enough reserves to handle a bank run—how could it? This sort of panic, after the November 1929 Wall Street Crash had pulled the world down, was a significant part of the Great Depression. Today the government insists on deposit insurance and stands ready to help. If only nonbanks, “financial institutions,” such as Goldman and Sachs, had been subject to such “pesky government regulation.” Apparently, “enough insurance” does not mean a gold bit for every dollar, it means “enough to keep people from panicking.”

Could some modern day Goldfinger take aim at the banner in order to rake in his profits? Yes! The machinations of one George Soros, an American entrepreneur, only 16 years before the Wall Street Meltdown, is described in The Return of Depression Economics and the Crises of 2008 by Nobel prize (for economics) winner Paul Krugman, on page 123:
 “The first stage had to be low profile… established credit lines … to borrow about $15 billion worth of British pounds and to convert that sum into dollars at will. Then, once the fund was … long in dollars and short in pounds, the attack had to turn noisy: Soros would be as ostentatious as possible about short-selling the pound, give interviews to financial newspapers declaring his belief that the pound would soon be devalued, and so on. If all went well, this would generate a run on the pound by other investors, a run that would force the British government to give in and devalue it.
It worked. Soros’s high-profile assault on the pound began in August. Within weeks Britain had spent nearly $50 billion in the foreign exchange markets to defend the pound, to no avail… Soros not only made roughly a billion dollars in quick capital gains but also established himself as perhaps the most famous speculator of all time.”
 Luckily, I’m living in Canada—Praise the Lord. When Wall Street melted down, pulling the world into a recession, Canada had enough government regulation to be the only G-8 nation not affected. Not to say Canada is without villains. As I drove along this morning I thought about how a banner can rally public focus against villainy.

Attend a cocktail party, get a circle of Canadians focused on talking about their national airline, and then listen to the contemptuous awful stories about their only airline—But Canada once had two national airlines: a loser, where the public voted with their feet, and a winner. The bad one was in the red, the good one in the black. Then the federal government changed the rules, just this once, for only six months, allowing just a six-month window for a hostile legal takeover: The losing airline … was not bought out… no, they took over the winning one! The scandal of the bad airline immediately deleting the seniority of pilots from the good airline made the front page. I remember an old pilot finding himself with less seniority than his son.

Right away there was a comedy skit on the CBC where Rick Mercer kept hitting a flip chart with a pointer, sarcastically pointing out the whole dreary affair. Did the masses rise up? Did even one politician have the leadership ability of George Soros to put the pressure on, giving us hope and confidence by holding the banner high, with frequent press interviews, saying he would not let go until there was some action… giving people a banner to focus on and rally around… Nope. Not that I recall.

Our parliament might know how to legislate, but apparently not one politician would exercise the managerial skills of a competent corporate executive. The issue could not, as they say, “get traction.” The infamous six-month window could not become, in terms of social confidence, an issue for the rest of us to rally around to fight about. Instead, for those months we Canadians were lonely sheep, helpless before the lion. At the time, all I could do was think weakly, “The fix is in.” When I flew earlier this month I refused to patronize the big glamorous airline, using instead a no frills airline, even if this meant no in-flight free meal.

As I see it, as an individual I pick my battles; as a society we pick our banners. Obviously, then, President Obama can’t fix every government department all at once, but if he wants us to have even a snowball’s hope for reforming the NSA and Homeland Security then he better get a grip on his banner, and make a public priority of those two.  Meanwhile, naturally, all of our mistakes in our everyday life, or in our government, should be addressed. “Never pass a fault” as we said in my old regiment. Still, for any situation where the government is actively, consciously resisting even admitting to having a problem, let alone dealing with it, a banner is needed.

By “banner” I imagine a constant ongoing thing, such as announcements to the media regarding progress in researching a scandal, or progress in organizing activities, or in achieving change.

An absence of this banner concept, I guess, explains the void known as the Occupy Wall Street movement. As I recall, the only news, week after week, was that the bodies hadn’t left. No one in the movement was using his library card for ongoing research to probe Wall Street; no one was revealing things about Wall Street to the rest of us. The occupiers had no gatherings or leadership conferences to share knowledge or make tactical plans or generate energy. Folks who might have been natural allies, such as economist Paul Krugman, with ideas of what reforms to prioritize, were never encouraged to rally around the flag.

There was no banner to prevent the legion on the street from slowly fading, dimming, dwindling away with a whimper. If only a lion like George Soros, after being given legitimacy in the movement, could have held up a banner for his fellow occupiers, complete with press interviews. But no, it was easier for the big sensitive egos in the movement to “idealistically” keep things leaderless… and a failure.

Of course we can’t raise a banner for everything; we have to choose one focus… just as on a weekend soccer field with the Boys’nGirls Club, even if we have many extra players on the field, we can’t respond by playing with two soccer balls. …

Nor can we go to war with two widely separated banners; we can’t “punch with both hands at once.” But we did: Such madness is partly why ex-President Ford was reportedly furious with President Bush for fighting two wars: As one senior civil servant put it, “In theory we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, in practice we can’t.”

In my car today I mused, and later I thought some more… I think the concept of banners is as useful as a proverb: ancient, time-tested and practical.

Sean Crawford
Once an eagle
Calgary, Canada
January 2014

~Update, May 2014: Today I see that a Russian was on my site. Last month the Russians must have reasoned that by using "masked troops without insignia" in Eastern Ukraine the USA would be mystified enough not to raise a banner confidently and firmly for Europe to rally around. The Russians reasoned correctly.

~The Canadian Olympic flag bearer is Hayley Wickenheiser on the women’s hockey team.

~Reference: The Return of Depression Economics and the Crises of 2008, Paul Krugman, W.W. Norton and Company, New York London, 2009

~I wrote three essays covering three categories of Wall Street Occupiers found here in my hometown, archived in December 2011.  

Sidebar: A NATO general noted the role of the soldier is not to slay, but to be slain… 
The concept of “banners” for fighting, even in this age of machine warfare, explains a lot.
In popular culture, for example, it explains the movie Young Guns where Brian Keith’s two-gun character, like an old bull, could defeat the entire brat pack. The young men shared no mutual confidence, and their “leader” had no legitimacy or support.

It’s why the Iraqi police, faced with a few insurgents, would scatter like chickens before a fox. The police wouldn’t hold together "to be slain" under the banner of a government that lacked legitimacy in their eyes. I don’t think their training was the issue.

It explains South Vietnam. The people of that republic, rightly or wrongly, regarded their government as being corrupt and their leader as being “an American puppet.” They must have thought, “What’s the use?” Hence their army fell like dominos before the invasion of the north, although, in fairness, the northern army was not guerrillas in black pajamas: They invaded “with more tanks and trucks than the Wehrmacht going into France.” However, the South Vietnamese could not, man for man, outfight simple guerrillas either. Hence the bitter joke the G.I.s direct at a news reporter in Stanly Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket: (from memory) “Want to buy some South Vietnamese rifles? Never been fired, and only dropped once.”

The US conscripted guys at age 19, while the Vietnamese, despite the alleged urgency of the war, and despite urging by the US, wouldn’t conscript until age 21.

The theory of banners explains why American boys, raised on junk food and pampered in cities, complete with air conditioning, can nevertheless fight as well as lean people raised in harsh third world countryside… And who can forget the young baby boomers at the end of Kubrick’s movie, still retaining their boyish idealism, advancing to the tune of the Mickey Mouse club?

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