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Apr 20 2009

American oligarchy-3: Welcome to the club

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is not just Geithner who is a slave to Wall Street interests. Key economic advisor in the Obama administration Lawrence Summers, although he comes from academia, is also enmeshed in that world. In just 2008 alone, Summers received $5.2 million from the hedge fund firm D. E. Shaw. Mind you, he was still a full-time professor at Harvard at that time, so this was for just part-time work. (Jonathan Schwarz breaks down the links to all his financial dealings.)

Summers also received $135,000 as a speaking fee for two speeches given at Goldman Sachs, the company that has been, and continues to be, a huge beneficiary of the bailout. (Recall that the previous Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and before that Robert Rubin also used to head that same firm). At that time, Summers was already heavily involved in the Democratic campaign and it was clear that he would be a major player in either the Obama or Clinton administration. So Goldman Sach was likely buying “insurance” or, as Glenn Greenwald says, paying an “advanced bribe”, making sure that a friendly face would be in a major decision making position in the new Democratic administration, since they could not pay him once he joined the administration.

Here’s another examination by David Sirota of the close-knit and like-minded people from both parties who control economic policy.

At the top is Lawrence Summers, the director of Obama’s National Economic Council. As Bill Clinton’s Treasury secretary in the late 1990s, Summers worked with his deputy, Tim Geithner (now Obama’s Treasury secretary), and Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel (now Obama’s chief of staff) to champion job-killing trade deals and deregulation that Obama Commerce Secretary-designate Judd Gregg helped shepherd through Congress as a Republican senator. Now, this pinstriped band of brothers is proposing a “cash for trash” scheme that would force the public to guarantee the financial industry’s bad loans. It’s another ploy “to hand taxpayer dollars to the banks through a variety of complex mechanisms,” says economist Dean Baker—and noticeably absent is anything even resembling a “rival” voice inside the White House.

This financial oligarchy makes sure that those who are not with the program of letting the big financial firms have unfettered control over the economy get shut out of power. The story of Brooksley Born, former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, is illustrative. She describes how her efforts in the 1990s to bring the wild derivative markets that caused the current crisis under regulation was vigorously opposed and defeated by a coalition of Alan Greenspan (then head of the Federal Reserve), then Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration Robert Rubin (who used to head Goldman Sachs), and Lawrence Summers. Her story shows the bi-partisan nature of the protection given to Wall Street’s interests.

As chairperson of the CFTC, Born advocated reining in the huge and growing market for financial derivatives. Derivatives get their name because the value is derived from fluctuations in, for example, interest rates or foreign exchange. They started out as ways for big corporations and banks to manage their risk across a range of investments. One type of derivative—known as a credit-default swap—has been a key contributor to the economy’s recent unraveling.

Back in the 1990s, however, Born’s proposal stirred an almost visceral response from other regulators in the Clinton administration, as well as members of Congress and lobbyists. The economy was sailing along, and the growth of derivatives was considered a sign of American innovation and a symbol of the virtues of deregulation. The instruments were also a growing cash cow for the Wall Street firms that peddled them to eager takers.

Ultimately, Greenspan and the other regulators foiled Born’s efforts, and Congress took the extraordinary step of enacting legislation that prohibited her agency from taking any action. Born left government and returned to her private law practice in Washington. (my italics)

Speaking out for the first time, Born says she takes no pleasure from the turn of events. She says she was just doing her job based on the evidence in front of her. Looking back, she laments what she says was the outsized influence of Wall Street lobbyists on the process, and the refusal of her fellow regulators, especially Greenspan, to discuss even modest reforms. “Recognizing the dangers . . . was not rocket science, but it was contrary to the conventional wisdom and certainly contrary to the economic interests of Wall Street at the moment,” she says.

All this occurred during Bill Clinton’s administration during which Republicans controlled both houses of Congress for most of the time. So the concept of ‘divided government’ applies only as long as Wall Street interests are not involved. We see that all these people from across the political spectrum, so-called conservatives and so-called liberals, Democrats and Republicans, united to give Wall Street a free hand by removing restrictions from the financial institutions and thus sowed the seeds of the current crisis, showing how the financial oligarchy maintains continuity even though political parties come and go.

Alan Greenspan was such a die-hard Ayn Rand devotee that he even told Bonds that he did not think there should be any laws against fraud because the market would take care of things. We saw how well that turned out. The problem is that in an oligarchic system as currently exists, market forces only apply to powerless people. When the markets turn against the big financial interests, they have the power and influence to get the government to use taxpayer money to bail them out. Oligarchies never lose unless there is a popular revolt.

POST SCRIPT: The need for strong oversight

Jon Stewart has an excellent two-part interview with Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel on TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), who has been charged with overseeing the current bailout.

Part 1 explains what is going on now and part 2 explains clearly how we got into this mess and what we need to do in the future.

Part 1:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 1
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

Part 2:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart M – Th 11p / 10c
Elizabeth Warren Pt. 2
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic Crisis Political Humor

My concern is that because Warren seems to be honest and smart, she may be seen as a thorn in the side of the oligarchy which will try to make her serve as the usual window dressing to make it look as if there is accountability when in reality there is none. It seems clear that she is already being slowly frozen out of the information loop by the Obama administration. I wonder how long it will be before she quits in frustration, like Brooksley Born.

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