"When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves, in the course of time, a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it."
-- Frederic Bastiat, 1845
On Tuesday, I listened to New York Times financial columnist Gretchen Morgenson at Weber State University, and the whole thing left me very depressed.
Yeah, I know: She's a liberal media type. But would a liberal leave me depressed, despondent, wondering if there's any hope?
Is there any hope? She sure frowned a lot.
Sorry to get wonky, but finance is important.
Finance is the reason you can't retire until you are 70, your house was repossessed, nobody is buying your company's widgets and Utah's Legislature, in its alleged wisdom, wants Utahns to use gold and silver for money.
The finance industry lurches from one disaster to the next. Because it is 20 percent of the economy, it drags us all with it.
Morgenson has been at the Times since 1998. She cut her teeth on the hedge fund collapse, segued into the savings and loan debacle and matured on Enron, the tech bubble and, "finally, this credit fiasco," as she called it, a fiasco that turned the nation's housing market into guacamole.
Her latest book has the cheery title "Reckless Endangerment: How Outsized Ambition, Greed and Corruption Created the Worst Financial Crisis of Our Time."
She illustrated the current situation with the quote from Frederic Bastiat, a French classical liberal theorist and political economist, at the head of this column.
In her talk, she made it clear that, despite recent reforms by the federal government, not much good is happening yet.
Jail? More than 1,100 finance executives were prosecuted after the savings and loan mess. More than 800 went to jail.
So far at this time, one guy from "a small and relatively obscure" company has been prosecuted.
Meanwhile, the number of "too big to fail" banks has increased. New regulations leave them still able to ask for a bailout if they get into trouble.
"So add it all up, I think you can see why we are in a most difficult and frustrating situation," she said.
She said lots more, and as I said, the whole thing left me depressed. The financial industry is intricately intertwined with politics on all levels.
What can we do?
I saw Scott Parkinson in the audience. He is vice president of Bank of Utah, an independent community bank that, like me, has watched the financial world tremble and roll the last five years.
The bank has done pretty well. Scott tells me the bank's reserves are as good as they've ever been. Bank of Utah even took over the abandoned headquarters of Centennial Bank, which failed and was taken over two years ago by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
I asked Scott, should I be depressed?
"I guess I think that probably what she's talking about, she puts in pretty dramatic language," he said, "but I can't say anything she's talking about is not true."
What does all that mean for you and me, here in Utah?
It means you need to take care of yourself, he agreed. Don't play the national game, don't panic, don't go to extremes.
Get your own fiscal house in order: Pay off your debt, get your house paid off, live on a budget.
Ignore pundits who say, "Spend money to boost the economy."
"Where should I put my money?" I asked this vice president of a local bank.
"You can walk through the front door and talk to the president of the bank," he said.
No offense to national banks, but you gotta admit, they can't make that claim.
The Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. He can be reached at 801-625-4232, or firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at www.standard.net.