Making The Tough Choices To Save The Economy?

from the stop-giving-the-banks-everything-they-want dept

With the latest plan laid out last week on how to "save Wall Street" ("the Geithner plan"), there's a lot of back and forth over whether or not this is a good plan or not -- and while Planet Money had a decent "is it good or bad?" show, the folks there didn't get too deep into it (and even claimed that no one really thought the plan was all that dangerous (just that it could slow down the recovery). However, the more I read up on it, the worse and worse it seems. Simon Johnson has a long, but worthwhile writeup at The Atlantic, where he delves into how Wall Street has effectively taken over Washington DC, such that it helped both create the mess, and then set things up so that the "recovery plan" only benefits those who caused the problems in the first place. This echoes a piece by Andy Kessler last week, where he pointed out that we're effectively handing money to those who brought the collapse upon us -- and suggests that the better response is to simply stymie the plans of the hedge funds -- flooding the markets where they're looking to buy, rather than subsidizing them.

Then, there's Umair Haque, who basically makes the same points, but suggests that this is an outright looting of taxpayer money by putting most of the risk on taxpayers, and encouraging the hedge funds to make increasingly risky loans (you know, like the ones that got us into this mess in the first place). The root of all of these stories is that the government seems to think that the only way to fix the problem is to reinflate the bubble, rather than letting the bubble deflate and moving forward from there. The problem with reinflating the bubble isn't just that it puts off the inevitable (though, it does), but that the inevitable is that much worse when it comes.

It's what we've done for the past couple decades -- effectively building an even shakier house of cards, and every time the cards start to fall... we just reinforce it with another layer of shaky cards to prop it up. At some point, the cards do have to fall, and propping it up with more leverage isn't going to help that.

Even if, as Richard Posner suggests, the current plan is about the most politically feasible, it's still problematic. The politics of the situation is troubling. On one side, you have populist anger, making it difficult to do certain necessary things. On the other, you do still have the influence of the bankers, who view the world as being one where we need to keep propping up that house of cards.

Why is it that no one is talking about carefully taking down the house of cards while building a sturdy house next door?


Reader Comments (rss)

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  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 6:09am

    Come the revolution things will be different!

    Not better, just different.

     

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    Valkor, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 6:18am

    For one thing, building a sturdy house is a hell of a lot harder than propping up a house of cards.
    There's not as much fast, easy money and wild growth in sturdy houses.
    Building a sturdy house takes actual work, forethought that extends beyond just the next layer of cards, and restraint of greed.
    Usually, risk evaluation keeps people from moving into a beautiful but shaky house of cards, but if everyone knows that the house of cards will be propped up again, the perceived risk decreases. Government backed flood insurance did the same thing with literal houses in hurricane zones. When the government started backing up insurance policies, it made more sense for people to build houses in places that get demolished every decade or so.

    Unfortunately, too many humans can't resist a really beautiful house of cards.

     

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  3.  
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    WallStreet, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 6:34am

    Bonus

    And I deserve a bonus no matter what happens.
    I worked hard to skim those billions from hard working people.

     

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  4.  
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    Dave, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 6:40am

    Why is it that no one is talking about carefully taking down the house of cards while building a sturdy house next door?

    Many are. There is a drive to increase the regulation of the industry and all sorts of changes are being discussed. However, you still have to have a place to live while your sturdy house is being built. To do that, you have to keep whatever you have standing until that's done.

     

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    Alex, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 6:47am

    "When European colonialists realised that they had no choice but to hand over power to the indigenous citizens, they would often turn their attention to stripping the local treasury of its gold and grabbing valuable livestock. If they were really nasty, like the Portuguese in Mozambique in the mid-1970s, they poured concrete down the elevator shafts.

    Nothing so barbaric for the Bush gang. Rather than open plunder, it prefers bureaucratic instruments."

    Naomi Klein - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/oct/31/useconomy-banking

     

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  6.  
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    R. Miles, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 6:49am

    I've a theory.

    Why is it that no one is talking about carefully taking down the house of cards while building a sturdy house next door?
    Simple: Capitalism prevents it.

    Well, to be more precise, the revenues of a capitalistic source prevents it.

    Mike, take a good look around. Every industry you've mentioned in the past year is based on the notion not a single one is willing to take a chance to change.

    Why should they? Each keeps trying to maintain old business models, usually to the point the doors shut for good. They want the revenue to keep coming in and will do anything to protect it.

    Give money to a business? Sure, and we all watch how the money gets wasted. Why don't these businesses try something new?

    More importantly, why isn't a stipulation these businesses use part of the bailout cash to change?

    I don't disagree with the statement Wall St. owns our politician. Hell, this is been evident for decades when bills are created to support these very businesses to protect their revenue.

    Things aren't going to change until these businesses fail and new, innovative businesses take over. However, it's an illusion as these businesses will also grow to be large, falling into the same cycle as current businesses (the con of capitalism).

    You often cite economic models for some of the topics, but where in economics is it written if a company is too large to fail, then so shall the taxpayers support it?

    I can't find it anywhere, yet these "economic advisers" believe this is the only solution. Do they not believe in the very economic model they were educated with to understand failure is inevitable without innovation?

    You're preaching to an audience which will not listen because they maintain the belief the business model is not flawed.

    And until they fail, no new business can catch a break to offer innovative ideas. Patent lawsuits, copyright issues, and other legal tactics are quickly entered into play, giving little chance for these new businesses.

    Yet the government supports these non-innovating companies with taxpayer money.

    The truth comes down to this: Unless the taxpayer gets involved, change isn't going to happen.

    To this day, I can not fathom how 200 million people can just sit idly by and do nothing except bitch about luxurious meetings and million dollar bonuses while dismissing the real problem.

    Alas, these articles are always entertaining. It's like watching someone trying to shove a square peg into a round hole, neither giving into to change.

     

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    Pjerky (profile), Mar 30th, 2009 @ 7:08am

    Does anyone really have a solution?

    Seriously Mike, that idea sounds great. But does anyone really know what this strong and stable house should look like? Does anyone know what a strong and stable house normally looks like? Does anyone know how to carefully pull down the old one?

    All of this talk is great, but if no one knows how then it is pointless. We can bitch and moan all we want, but unless we have real solutions to the problem all we are doing is griping about the inevitable. I think the real problem is that all the people smart enough to figure out the answers are too enamored or invested in the old system to build a new one. Plus, getting 350 million people across the country to get in line with it would be a miracle. Let alone the 6 billion people across the world.

     

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    Danny, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 7:15am

    The Problem is...

    Why is it that no one is talking about carefully taking down the house of cards while building a sturdy house next door?

    The ones getting all this bailout money are not the ones that have to pay for the repairs for these shaky card houses. And then on top of that no only do they not have to pay for the repairs of said shaky houses they then manage to reap the profit generated by them. Very little risk to them (because as mentioned they can dip into our pockets like its petty cash) and very big rewards for them.

     

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  9.  
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    Ryan, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 7:35am

    Re: Does anyone really have a solution?

    It was articulated fairly well in the post above. Let the poorly-managed businesses fail, and let the new, innovative businesses take over their market share. And let the market determine who wins by convincing consumers to pay for their product, instead of government determining who wins by awarding it to the highest-paying lobbyists.

     

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    Matthew, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 8:23am

    I agree with the first post. How is it lost on so many people that these times are much like the times just before the revolution that started this great country?

    There is someone that knows how to build a sturdy house next door. There is a POLITICIAN who knows it, his name is Ron Paul. I won't go on a rant for his sake, but go listen to him on youtube if you haven't.

    My despair comes when main stream media doesn't want to give anyone with a radical idea or though process the time of day. In peaceful times that radicalism is not needed (per say). However in these times, numerous people have said "we need a radical solution", not to prolong the "house of cards" mentality of the past several decades.

     

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    btrussell, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 8:29am

    Re: Re: Does anyone really have a solution?

    I agree 100%.

    Let them fail. It is their own fault. Ford isn't asking for a hand out.

    If money needs to be injected into the system, give it to the people. They will then decide individually which companies recieve the benefit of their money.

    Give it to the companies that are "too big to fail?" How does that benefit the people? Or rather, how many people will that benifit? A few top executives?

    If there is a demand, someone will supply.

     

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    Willton, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 8:49am

    Re: Re: Does anyone really have a solution?

    It was articulated fairly well in the post above. Let the poorly-managed businesses fail, and let the new, innovative businesses take over their market share. And let the market determine who wins by convincing consumers to pay for their product, instead of government determining who wins by awarding it to the highest-paying lobbyists.

    The problem is that so many people in our society depend on those so-called "poorly-managed businesses" for their livelihood, both as a source of income and as a source of necessary goods and services. Allowing them to fail while other businesses thrive sounds fine economically, but what happens to our society in the interim? To say that this tight-rope walk is suddenly going to operate without a net could have dire consequences for society, such as increased unemployment, increased poverty, and increased crime. While I would applaud any ideas that would help us build this "sturdy house next door," as Dave said above, we have to have a place to live while that sturdy house is being built.

     

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    Weird Harold, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 8:55am

    The economy can't be put on hold for a few years while we figure out the theoretical best sturdy house to build next to the one with the problems. The economy needs to work, and needs to work today. It's sort of like sitting at home without a job and planning your dream home. The reality is without either a huge pile of existing cash or a job, you ain't building your dream house. Where is your job? In the house of cards.

    So the answer lies mostly in solidifying the house of cards, getting rid of the structures that didn't work, and reworking what is there to get the results all the while allowing business to continue. It's how we can make the money to afford to have a stronger house tomorrow.

    @Matthew: If Ron Paul is the answer, I must have missed the question.

     

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  14.  
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    Crowman, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 9:12am

    Do you want a justice story or to avoid systemic failure?

    You cannot have both. Many of the guys who caused the issues are not benefitting from the recovery effort -- rather they are out of work or about to be so. Unfortunately, some are/will benefit from recovery efforts. For me recovery is more important than justice. First save the system, and then pass legislation that prevents the same type of opportunism. Trying to exact justice for

    If you want justice first, then you should really dole out justice to all. Banks made bad loans, Wall Street packaged the bad loans and the ratings agency nodded their heads -- all true. However, borrowers (on Main Street rather than Wall Street) took loans they could not repay. No one held a gun to their heads. As adults, they agreed to borrow and repay an amount of money with a given set of terms. To my way of thinking, everyone in the transactions are responsible for the failures.

     

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  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 9:16am

    Re: I've a theory.

     

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  16.  
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    John, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 9:19am

    Re: I've a theory.

    We haven't had capitalism in the US for quite a while.

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 9:34am

    too true crow man

    Everyone is too busy griping about the "fat cats" on wall street to look around and fess-up their own part. It's easy to damn someone you will never meet and cannot relate to. It's very hard to tell your neighbor that he shouldn't have bought that house he couldn't afford, instead of giving an easy out.

     

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  18.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 9:34am

    Re:

    Missing the question and missing the point seem to be in your stronger suite. Now, about your post.

    Strengthening the hold of the people who put us in this situation is just going to make it worse. I don't need Mike to tell me that. It's common sense. Yes, we all need work, but holding up the failed businesses while building new ones isn't any more an answer than just propping things up to keep the status quo. New businesses will need employees, too, and while the old house falls, the new one can pick the cream of the crop to build themselves.

    Economic and Social Darwinism?

     

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  19.  
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    Failure is relative, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 9:37am

    TOO BIG ... (to fail)

    It has been cover before, but it needs repeating.

    Anything that is too big to fail, needs to be broken into smaller pieces which can fail and will be allowed to fail.

     

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  20.  
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    Vincent Clement, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 11:06am

    Re: Re: Re: Does anyone really have a solution?

    People adapt. We scale back. We cut back. We retrain. We go back to school. We move in with family. And so on. The US has endured a great depression, several recessions, a few wars, even a deadly terrorist act. Yet, at the end of the day, the country was still there.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 11:22am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Does anyone really have a solution?

    I guess you were adressing the little people, because the highly paid CEOs and board members do not have to worry about such things do they? Company performance has little to no impact upon them.

    Compare plots of CEO compensation and mean income over the past 50 years. How does the rest of society adapt to that?

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 1:52pm

    If everybody agrees that monopoly is bad, why not to try competing private currencies? Maybe somebody will be more successful in providing money service without constant inflation and consequent bubbles.

     

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  23.  
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    pr, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 1:54pm

    Do we have the nerve?

    There are two options. One is we can continue to borrow money from foreigners (or fleecing them, as in the mortgage debacle) in order to buy off domestic special interests, or decide that we're going to live within our means and create some hope of long-term prosperity and maybe even buying our sovereignty back.

    The former is the banana republic economic model. GWB set us well along that path. BHO has decided to double (or triple or quadruple) down.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 3:05pm

    Re:

    There is a drive to increase the regulation of the industry and all sorts of changes are being discussed. However, you still have to have a place to live while your sturdy house is being built. To do that, you have to keep whatever you have standing until that's done.

    That's like saying that in order to avoid suffering, a drug addict should just keep using until after he's kicked his addiction.

    Sorry, it doesn't work that way.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 3:15pm

    Re: Re: I've a theory.

    We haven't had capitalism in the US for quite a while.

    To the contrary, we've had capitalism run amok in the US for quite a while. Everything, including laws and politicians, can be bought and sold. It's the ultimate "free market".

    Of course the capitalists cry "That wasn't us! Really! We wouldn't do that!" Yeah, right.

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 3:37pm

    Re: too true crow man

    It's very hard to tell your neighbor that he shouldn't have bought that house he couldn't afford,...

    Especially when the professional bankers told him that he could.

     

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  27.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 3:54pm

    Re: Do you want a justice story or to avoid systemic failure?

    However, borrowers (on Main Street rather than Wall Street) took loans they could not repay. No one held a gun to their heads. As adults, they agreed to borrow and repay an amount of money with a given set of terms.
    Except that you're failing to mention that they thought they could repay the loans because that's what the financial advisers and loan officers who only wanted to make a fast buck off the deal were telling them. The pros pushing these loans knew better but they didn't care because they didn't think the government would let the banks take the hit. They were right.
    To my way of thinking, everyone in the transactions are responsible for the failures.
    Blame the victims? That's easy, isn't it? Bull. I blame the money (con) men involved, not the victims.

     

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  28.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 3:57pm

    Re: Do you want a justice story or to avoid systemic failure?

    I've got news for you, injustice (punishing the innocent instead of the guilty) IS a systemic failure.

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 4:09pm

    No Blame

    We shouldn't hold the people responsible , well, responsible. Instead, they should be bailed out because otherwise they might not bring us more of these economic "innovations" in the future. We just can't let them be concerned about the consequences of failure.

    "If we went around blaming individuals for every failure, it creates tremendous incentives not to take on the necessary risk to create those next breakthroughs."
    - Mike Masnick ,2009

     

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  30.  
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    ddbb, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 4:11pm

    Mike, I wish you would apply your excellent analysis of incentives and economics that you have written about in other areas to the political and economic situation described in this post.

    It was not a house of cards that gets continually propped up. Instead, you have a government that continually produces regulation after regulation to address past problems (real or perceived) that merely create new crises. For example, consider how the actions of the FDIC, capital requirements and the CRA contributed to the current circumstances.

    Build a sturdy house? How could you consider giving this task to the people who would currently have the authority to attempt it? Do you really want the Barney Frank National Bank, Nancy Pelosi Savings & Loan or Barack Obama Credit Union? These people could not qualify for the training program at a financial institution, let alone to design a new financial structure. It is scary enough that they, along with Geithner and Summers, are going to impose new regulations that will cause the next catastrophe. They have done a marvelous job of trying to destroy the current financial system. I can only imagine the success they would have building a new one.

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 4:16pm

    Re:

    Do you really want the Barney Frank National Bank, Nancy Pelosi Savings & Loan or Barack Obama Credit Union?

    Couldn't be any worse than the George Bush GOP Financial Planning Services.

     

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  32.  
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    Willton, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 4:58pm

    Re:

    If everybody agrees that monopoly is bad, why not to try competing private currencies? Maybe somebody will be more successful in providing money service without constant inflation and consequent bubbles.

    That was a reality during the 18th Century when our governing document was the Articles of Confederation. States issued their own currencies back then, and problems arose regarding the valuation of each currency compared to another. It made trade very inefficient and caused states to act in ways that were protectionist. It was with this backdrop that the Founders constructed Article I, Section 8 Clause 5 of the Constitution, which give Congress the sole power to coin money and set the standards by which the value of money is measured.

    So, aside from your proposed idea being unconstitutional, it would be economically inefficient to have private companies to issue their own forms of currency for us to use as trade. Doing so is tantamount to returning to the system of barter-for-trade. The benefits of uniformity far outweigh whatever perceived benefit competition would give in this arena.

     

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  33.  
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    Mike (profile), Mar 30th, 2009 @ 5:11pm

    Re: No Blame

    We shouldn't hold the people responsible , well, responsible. Instead, they should be bailed out because otherwise they might not bring us more of these economic "innovations" in the future. We just can't let them be concerned about the consequences of failure.

    "If we went around blaming individuals for every failure, it creates tremendous incentives not to take on the necessary risk to create those next breakthroughs."


    Um. Wow. Nice total misinterpretation of what I said. I did not say we should reward those responsible, nor did I say we should prop them up or thank those that caused the problems.

    What I said, quite clearly (I thought!) was that simply going around looking for people to blame and punish doesn't fix things.

    My position is consistent. There's a world of difference between saying that we should be fixing the system and that we should be sending a populist crowd around to lynch those responsible. I think the latter is a bad idea. But fixing the system is quite important. My position has been entirely consistent on this from day one.

    We don't need blame, we need constructive ways of looking forward.

     

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  34.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2009 @ 7:32pm

    Re: Re: No Blame

    Um. Wow. Nice total misinterpretation of what I said.

    Wow. Maybe you missed the quote marks. Only the part between the quotes was attributed to you. And it was a direct quote, not an "interpretation", "mis" or otherwise. And given with a link for context to boot.

    There's a world of difference between saying that we should be fixing the system and that we should be sending a populist crowd around to lynch those responsible.

    I agree that you can't continue to innovate from the end of a rope. And I didn't advocate that either. Nice straw man though.

     

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  35.  
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    Mike (profile), Mar 31st, 2009 @ 12:38am

    Re: Re: Re: No Blame

    Wow. Maybe you missed the quote marks. Only the part between the quotes was attributed to you. And it was a direct quote, not an "interpretation", "mis" or otherwise. And given with a link for context to boot.

    Didn't miss the quote marks, but it was clear from what you wrote that the first part was a weak and false attempt to incorrectly paraphrase what I said. It was a flat out misrepresentation, and then "supported" with my words taken out of context.

     

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  36.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2009 @ 7:11am

    What happens if the solution to building a stronger house is a smaller house? Will we accept that? Will we accept that not everyone will ever be able to own a home? Will we accept that not everyone gets the best health care? Will we accept that there will not be as many jobs?

    The solution isn't all that difficult, but living with the results might be.

     

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  37.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2009 @ 10:05am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: No Blame

    Didn't miss the quote marks, but it was clear from what you wrote that the first part was a weak and false attempt to incorrectly paraphrase what I said. It was a flat out misrepresentation, and then "supported" with my words taken out of context.

    Read my lips: It wasn't an interpretation (or paraphrase). If you didn't miss the quote marks (AND separate paragraph) then you're the one doing the "total misinterpretation". Deliberately. At this point, since it was already explained to you, I would even say lying.

    And like I pointed out, the context was clearly provided in a convenient, easy to click link to the entire article lest anyone get confused. What do you expect, for everyone to quote entire articles every time they post a quote? Well you sure don't do that yourself, do you? Freaking hypocrite. Maybe you think you're special and your you-know-what don't stink. I've got news for you.

    Now go take a hike. I've got better things to do than deal with your distorted accusations (which I imagine will continue regardless).

     

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  38.  
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    Mike (profile), Mar 31st, 2009 @ 10:31am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: No Blame

    Read my lips: It wasn't an interpretation (or paraphrase). If you didn't miss the quote marks (AND separate paragraph) then you're the one doing the "total misinterpretation". Deliberately. At this point, since it was already explained to you, I would even say lying.

    If it was a total misinterpretation, then what was the point of your post?

    You clearly seemed to imply I was saying something I had not. If that's not what you intended, then please explain what you were trying to say?

     

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  39.  
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    Gene Cavanaugh, Mar 31st, 2009 @ 5:45pm

    Geithner's plan

    I read the links, and saw a lot of pontificating and venting, but very little information.

     

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  40.  
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    ReverendJoe, Apr 15th, 2009 @ 9:01am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: No Blame

    Mike, I know I'm way late to this conversation, but I couldn't help thinking of a great quote I heard recently as I was reading this "exchange". Don't know who said it first, but it goes like this:

    "Never argue with an idiot. They'll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience."

    We've been using that one A LOT at work lately ... ;^)

     

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