Stay Tuned — in the early days of commercial radio broadcasting, the tube-packed receiver had to be carefully tuned to a specific frequency to hear the program then traveling over the airwaves. I have one of the 1930s RCA Victor radios (in handsome wood cabinet) here in the office. “Tuning in” to a frequency really did take a bit of work. And so the broadcasters would advise, “stay tuned to this station for…” and “tune in every Sunday to hear…” Having grown up with radio, and having worked in radio, over the years of my writing, I returned often to the phrase, “stay tuned.”
It’s an apt description for what I do – as a researcher, trend-detector and trendwatcher, I “tune in” to things going on that could have consequences near- or longer-term. Or, I tune in to “yesteryear,” to look at events and actions of the past for meaning in today’s world. As historian-philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) observed a century ago in “Life of Reason,” those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
I do a lot of writing on the present and past and often in looking into the future. (No, not making any crystal ball claims.) This blog (an on-line log or “old-fashioned” journal) looks at things going on in our society that present signals worth detecting, dots worth connecting, boxes to think outside of…and so on. These are my personal views, not representative of anything more than my own thinking and writing (which helps me in my thinking).
I’m fascinated by things that we cheer and then (later) jeer…or things that we see or perhaps don’t see because they are hiding in plain sight. (I am a big fan of author Malcolm Gladwell, of “The Tipping Point” and Thomas Friedman of “Hot, Flat and Crowded.” I learned from reading the works of Alvin & Heidi Toffler and Peter Drucker, among many wise authors.)
Case in point on thinking backward and forward and connecting dots: In October 1929, investors large and small in the the U.S. stock market suffered cataclysmic losses — too much speculation and junk on sale. Hundreds of banks failed. The “Great Depression” pushed millions of families from new middle class prosperity to poverty. In response, the Congress passed the “Banking Act of 1933,” which prohibited commercial banks from being connected to brokerage firms — this was “Glass-Steagall,” named for sponsors Senator Carter Glass and Representative Henry Steagall. (Both Democrats in a Democratically-controlled Congress with a new Democrat in the White House – President Franklin Roosevelt.) The measure was supposed to deter speculation — and was under attack from then on by bankers and “free market” advocates.
Move forward to 1998 — Citigroup is formed, combining the venerable First National City Bank, Traveler’s Insurance, Primerica, and Salomon Smith Barney (yes, a brokerage). Chairman Sandy Weill’s dream of a “super” bank is realized – and Glass-Steagall directly challenged. Then – 1999 – Senator Phil Gramm, with Representatives Jim Leach and Thomas Bliley get the law named for them passed and “banking reform” was promised. (All were Republicans). President Bill Clinton signs this into law — with Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and key advisor Larry Summers at his side. (Rubin will depart for Citigroup as vice chair; Summers will later become Treasury head.)
The lines between brokerage / investment banking / commercial banking quickly blur. Bank of America absorbs Merrill Lynch. Other large banks follow the example. What’s ahead? For one (important) thing – the financial crisis of 2007-2008, with the US Treasury pouring hundreds of millions’ of taxpayer dollars into “big bank bailouts.” (Remember “TARP?” Those who don’t are ignoring history, Professor Santayana might observe.)
The debate about Glass-Steagall protections going away and being a factor in the crisis a decade later is highly debated, pro and con, and in the end the matter is not so simple. Anyway, we can connect the dots…we now have “G-S Lite,” in the form of the Volcker Rule, named for former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who in 1979 helped to end ruinous inflation with his tough and courageous actions. Let’s see how things work out with this “lite” rule in place. The rule is part of the package of the Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2008. (Sponsors were Senator Chris Dodd and Representative Barney Frank. Both Democrats. Both gone from Congress.) Is there a pattern here? Dunno – yet! What’s ahead for G-S Lite? Dunno – yet!
As for predicting the future — of course, that was easy — the American Banking Association has now filed suit to challenges the legality of the Volcker Rule. Is this 1933…1986…1998…2008? Doesn’t matter — some of the challenges posed are consistent. Do Stay Tuned to our banking system! And calls for more regulation and less regulation and oversight. So that’s an example of tuning in to yesteryear and today and peering into the future as events unfold.
Your feedback on my commentaries and ramblings are welcome. Thank you for tuning in today — I will try not to disappoint.
Personal note: I’ve been a writer for four decades now, working in various media including newspapers, magazines, newsletters, books, and a wide range of authorship for clients. I often am surprised myself when I look back and something I’ve written shows what was ahead, often hiding in plain sight. The life of the writer can be a high-wire act. Think about it – when we “push” the words out…we are putting our work in the public eye. Readers may like what you have to say…or hate what it. But as writers we seem to be compelled to proceed anyway. Following the compulsion, I am staying tuned…and thinking and writing. – Hank Boerner