Ben Stein's Diary

Uncle Sam Does Not Like You

Retirees with savings learned that the hard way.

By 7.15.14

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Monday
I cannot believe this. There are clouds in the sky and teeny tiny drops of rain are falling. Just a few tears from heaven, but still, rain here is nonexistent, so, baby, I’m amazed.

Wifey and I met Phil DeMuth for lunch at a sushi place in West Hollywood. The room is a triangular shape and today there is a horrible smell in the air. My lungs are closing up and I feel asthma coming on. I’m pretty sure it’s floor polish or maybe one of those HORRIBLE air cleaners that squirts some VILE smell into the air every few seconds. Poison gas, at least to me.

I gave the waitress a twenty (not her fault about the air) and we left in a great hurry. We walked across to L.A. Buns, an outdoor Mexican café. We ordered and watched all of the gay people walk by. The food — cheese enchiladas for Alex, burgers for Phil and me — was tasty and filling and cheap.

This is the epicenter of gay West Hollywood and it puzzles me why they have the only lively street life that I know of in Los Angeles. Why is that? A few blocks farther west, there were hundreds of Asian girls apparently lined up for a concert by some Asian rock group. But I have never seen them here before and probably never will again. I want to go to Asia and try to find the best sushi on earth. But to go back to Topic A, as Mr. Nixon used to call the main subject, why do the gay men have the only lively street scene in L.A.? I guess I would have to say they are most in need of socializing, but that’s just a guess.

The subject of Phil and my conversation was simply this:

The economic crisis of 2008-2009, which in some ways is ongoing, was the result of dangerously lax residential mortgage lending. Encouraged by the feds, big banks and mortgage companies lent money to homebuyers who could not afford the properties.

When the crunch came, the homeowners bolted. The banks foreclosed and had millions of empty houses, and when they had to write down the value of this collateral, many of the biggest banks, commercial and investment, were underwater. One of the biggest, Lehman, failed.

The others were propped up by taxpayer money and government bailouts. There was panic in the air. Real terror.

Not one high bank executive went to prison despite evidence of fantastic incompetence. And that’s only right since incompetence is not a crime or else we would all be rotting in durance vile.

But look what happened: families who could not afford good houses got to have them and then when they couldn’t afford to pay anymore, they skipped out on their debts.

Bankers who had made billions packaging the loans got incredibly rich and when the bubble burst, they did not give back any money. Law firms got rich papering the deals and then doing the legal work for the rescues.

Meanwhile, the federal government sought to revive the economy that had gone into shock from the Lehman collapse by keeping interest rates super low AND flooding the economy with money.

They did this in the wildly mistaken belief that the banking economy suffered from insufficient liquidity. That was never wholly true. Yes, the banks were choking to death because of fears of insolvency that cut off funds to the banks. A Treasury guarantee of solvency would have solved the problem. Turning on the money valve didn’t. Even when the Fed turned on the money spigot full blast, banks were still ultra-cautious about lending.

Yes, the banks made money because while they were scared to lend to John Q. Public, they could lend to the Treasury and make money like crazy off the free money the Fed had given them. But the economy did not revive for a long time because the banks are only now beginning to lend and even now, standards are extremely tight.

Now, here comes the horrible part: as the Fed drove interest rates to close to zero, who suffered? The savers. The people on fixed incomes. The retirees. The steady earners and solid citizens. They saw their income from bank deposits, money market funds, and bonds cut to almost nil. Their aggregate loss of income during the period of the crash until now has to have been in the hundreds of billions if not the trillions. BUT THEY HAD DONE NOTHING WRONG!!! The good deed of saving got punished as good deeds always do.

The taxpayers eventually got almost all of their bailout money back. The bank executives continued to be rich. But the retirees got socked and no one ever made it up to them and no one has yet.

It did not have to happen that way. The Treasury could have guaranteed the solvency of the banks by an explicit guarantee and yet left interest rates alone. By not doing that, the Treasury and the Fed just decimated the incomes of retirees.

It is a sad story and it comes under the heading of, To Him That Hath, Shall Be Given. Interest rates will rise again some day but, savers, you are warned. Uncle Sam does not like you.

Well, enough of that.

After lunch I went for a long struggle with AT&T to get my wife’s broken “smart phone” to work. Five hours of my time and counting.

Then home for a nap, and then shopping where I met some touring Australians. Then, our granddaughter and daughter-in-law arrived. I swam. They watched and then we all had pizza and went to sleep.

I woke up and wrote this. “I was dreaming when I wrote this, so sue me if it goes astray. But when I woke up this morning, could have sworn it was Judgment Day.…”

Prince, 1999. I have a good memory for lyrics.

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About the Author

Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes "Ben Stein's Diary" for every issue of The American Spectator.