It has become a cliché to say the losses of the banking industry are bottomless. No one, not even among bankers, knows where they end. In the meantime, the government continues to search for ways to rescue the banking business. Some suggest establishing a “bad bank” to acquire all the toxic loans the banks now hold. Others propose “temporary nationalization” of ailing banks, with the government acquiring controlling interest in banks until they repay their debt to the federal government. A third proposal calls for direct aid to mortgage holders to help make their home payments. While not a total solution, aid to borrowers seems the best way to rescue the whole economy and the fairest way to see that the economy revives—from the bottom up.
Too many bankers continue to appear either irresponsible or incompetent. John A. Thain, the chief executive of Merrill Lynch, was forced out by Merrill’s new owner, Bank of America, after he rushed to pay out executive bonuses last December in advance of the completion of the sale of Merrill to BofA. For its part, Bank of America, finding Merrill’s value much less than it had estimated, has had to take another $20 billion from the federal government to complete its purchase of the brokerage house. Banks need to be disciplined “going forward,” as President Obama has said, but they also need to be disciplined for their monumental errors of the past decade. None so far has shown it is worthy of the public’s trust with further bailout monies.
Financial institutions have abused their social compact in the first stage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program by locking up bailout money as they continued to enrich their executives. If they receive new assets, it should be for the benefit of the people who as taxpayers are paying for the bailout. The major portion of the administration’s new financial rescue plan ought to go into the mortgage market. It is time for the rescue to trickle from the bottom up before it is soaked up at the top and cannot trickle down.
The Webby Pope
President Barack Obama’s big day in Washington, D.C., was not the only inauguration in the news this month. On Jan. 19, the Vatican announced that, in conjunction with the Internet giant Google, Pope Benedict XVI was inaugurating his own YouTube channel. There the pope’s speeches, accompanied by text, will be available for the Web crowd. It is certainly not the first foray of the Catholic Church into the new media. The Vatican has maintained an extensive and helpful Web site since 1995; and during the pope’s visit to Australia last summer for World Youth Day, he texted his younger fans, or at least those with younger technologies.
The pope also maintains a Facebook page under “His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.” At last count he has over 26,000 friends, most of whom count themselves as dedicated fans. “Pope Benedict, I would like to meet you,” writes Ziah on the pontiff’s page, “please visit Orange County, California, USA, as soon as possible.” (The pope has not yet responded to Ziah’s request.) Others want more specific help. “Can u please make missing the Australian V8 Supercar race in Bathurst, Australia, a sin in Australia?” asked Scott. But the pope is in good company on Facebook. Boasting satirical pages (unlike the pope’s real one) are luminaries like Karl Rahner and Jesus of Nazareth. Benedict’s fans may be impressed to learn that “Jesus Nazareth,” as he styles himself, had only 24 friends at the beginning of the new year—which means that, at least on the Web, the pope is 1,000 times more popular than his boss.
Miracle on the Hudson?
Many of those involved in Flight 1549’s ditching in the Hudson River joined New York’s Governor David Paterson in calling the survival of all the passengers and crew a “miracle.” Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III explained that “circumstance determined that it was this experienced crew that was scheduled on that particular flight on that particular day. But I know I can speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing what we were trained to do.”
Miracle of God, or a congeries of circumstances? The survival of the 155 passengers and crew may fit the more general description of a miracle as an extraordinary happening attributed to the presence and action of a divine power. But it does not fit the strict Catholic criteria for a miracle. (Even at Lourdes only 68 have been approved).
Yet should we be bound by definitions? Albert Einstein explained that “there are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Most of us are in between. The birth of a child, the size and complexity of the universe, an incident in which we avoid a tragedy, or even a “Hail Mary” pass may seem miraculous. But then we retreat to the ordinariness of everyday life and take for granted the marvel of flight, the amazing capability of the Blackberry, the coded information packed in a human cell. What is most important is not losing our sense of wonder—our perception that even with our scientific ways of explaining reality, there is usually more than meets the eye.