(For previous posts in this series, see here.)
In his article in the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic magazine titled The Quiet Coup, Former chief economist of the IMF Simon Johnson lists the fruits of the collusion between both political parties and Wall Street interests.
From this confluence of campaign finance, personal connections, and ideology there flowed, in just the past decade, a river of deregulatory policies that is, in hindsight, astonishing:
- insistence on free movement of capital across borders;
- the repeal of Depression-era regulations separating commercial and investment banking;
- a congressional ban on the regulation of credit-default swaps;
- major increases in the amount of leverage allowed to investment banks;
- a light (dare I say invisible?) hand at the Securities and Exchange Commission in its regulatory enforcement;
- an international agreement to allow banks to measure their own riskiness;
- and an intentional failure to update regulations so as to keep up with the tremendous pace of financial innovation.
Just examine that list for a moment. Did you hear about any of those important actions while they were being carried out? Were there front page news reports and commentary on them? Loud arguments? Highly publicized congressional hearings? Fierce partisan debates? When all that was going on, was there any attempt at informing the public of the potential consequences of these wide-ranging decisions? Of course not. The chances are that during those times our attention was focused on Monica Lewinsky, Terri Schiavo, gay marriage, Chandra Levy, Valerie Plame, and the like. This is why observing politics has to be like watching a magician. If you look at what your attention is being drawn to, you are missing what is actually happening. The real action takes place in obscure committee hearings, at the regulatory bodies, in private meetings between members of government and the heads of the financial firms, over lunch and dinner and on golf courses.
Did you notice how in the fall of 2008, as we lurched daily from crisis to crisis as one big firm after another like Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers fell, we were presented by the Treasury and Federal Reserve officials with ‘solutions’ to the problems that had been worked out seemingly overnight involving the taxpayer-subsidized purchase of one major institution by another that involved hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars? The only way that consensus could be reached so quickly and smoothly on such major actions was if there had always been collusion between the government and the financial firms involved and they saw their interests as one and the same.
Simon Johnson continues:
Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here. In September 2008, Henry Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to buy toxic assets from banks, with no strings attached and no judicial review of his purchase decisions. Many observers suspected that the purpose was to overpay for those assets and thereby take the problem off the banks’ hands—indeed, that is the only way that buying toxic assets would have helped anything. Perhaps because there was no way to make such a blatant subsidy politically acceptable, that plan was shelved.
Instead, the money was used to recapitalize banks, buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves. As the crisis has deepened and financial institutions have needed more help, the government has gotten more and more creative in figuring out ways to provide banks with subsidies that are too complex for the general public to understand.
This latest plan—which is likely to provide cheap loans to hedge funds and others so that they can buy distressed bank assets at relatively high prices—has been heavily influenced by the financial sector, and Treasury has made no secret of that.
Johnson says that the same remedies that the IMF routinely gives to developing countries in similar financial crisis should also apply to the US. But they are not, because the American oligarchy is immune to the pressure that the IMF can put on oligarchies in other countries. The American oligarchy is not responsible to anyone.
As the IMF understands (and as the U.S. government itself has insisted to multiple emerging-market countries in the past), the most direct way to do this is nationalization… Nationalization would not imply permanent state ownership. The IMF’s advice would be, essentially: scale up the standard Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation process.
This may seem like strong medicine. But in fact, while necessary, it is insufficient.
Then Johnson gets to the crux of the problem and what must be done. When reading it, remember that Johnson is a centrist technocrat, not some ideologue, and his understanding comes from dealing with many countries that have gone through financial crises.
The second problem the U.S. faces—the power of the oligarchy—is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending. And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple: break the oligarchy. (my italics)
But the IMF is not going to give this advice to the US because the US oligarchy, through the US government, pretty much dictates IMF policies.
The only way that the oligarchy will be broken is if the public demands it.
Next: Barack Obama’s role
POST SCRIPT: God as CEO
When you look at god’s actions as revealed in the Bible, you realize that he is not very good at strategic long-range planning, preferring to go for cheap and popular gimmicks. But not to worry! His apologists know how to explain away all the absurdities and contradictions.