A New Yorker story published online this morning describes yet another example of a financial debacle abetted by government corruption. As I read the first paragraph, it struck me that the basic plot is always the same – all you need to do is fill in the blanks:
In the spring of _______, as the reelection campaign of ______ was gathering momentum, a group of prominent _____ businessmen met for breakfast at the ________ to see the candidate. Among them was _____, the chief executive officer of _____, a fast and freewheeling financial institution that had brought together some of the most colorful and politically well-connected _____ in the country….
Last week’s final report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission explains in intricate detail why and how the U.S. economy imploded in 2008, but isolates no single, primary cause of the crisis. The Commission says that the crisis was “avoidable” and notes that “widespread failures in financial regulation and supervision proved devastating to the stability of the nation’s financial markets,” but this is just one Commission conclusion of many. As Joe Nocera points out, the report never gets to the bottom line.
Our report, “Sold Out: How Wall Street and Washington Betrayed America,” published in March 2009, got right to the bottom line in its title. We didn’t need subpoena power or a large staff to figure out what happened, just the willingness to say what everybody in the Wall Street/Washington axis of power already knew. Between 1998 and 2008, Wall Street invested $5 billion in Washington, a combination of money for lobbying and campaign contributions that won deregulation and other policy decisions that enabled the financial industry to do as it pleased. The ensuing orgy of unbridled speculation, based on “derivatives” and other financial schemes that even the CEOs themselves didn’t understand, came to a halt when the housing bubble burst and Wall Street couldn’t even figure out the value of the investments it held. The financial industry panicked, threatened to shut down the system, and got the government to undertake the mother of all bailouts – trillions of dollars in loans, tax breaks and other goodies.
In short: the power of money poisoned our policies and our politics, with dire consequences for all of us who don’t enjoy the special favors that only vast quantities of money can buy.
The Commission, created and appointed by Congress and composed of members of the political elite, could not possibly issue that indictment. Which is why the discussion of the bailout – the most obvious example of the special status of the privileged in our country – is a measly five pages out of 410.
The American public deserves better. In other man-made national disasters, like the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle 25 years ago, experts in the field – astrophysicists, geologists, academics – were asked to undertake an independent investigation. Their reports secured the confidence of the public, and led to remedial actions. NASA was not allowed to investigate itself, and lo and behold, it turned out that the culture at NASA was ultimately responsible for a design defect in the rocket.
Because it retreats from the fundamental truths, the Commission’s report does nothing to help us come to grips with the root cause of the financial crisis: the corruption of our democracy by special interest money. I know from more than thirty years of fighting for consumer rights – particularly in the insurance marketplace – that industry lobbyists and unlimited money to politicians almost inevitably kill legislation that would help average people. Even the feeble, loophole-ridden campaign laws that limited how much big corporations could spend in elections are in jeopardy, thanks to the United States Supreme Court’s decision last year in the Citizens United case, which decreed that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as human beings. Here in California, the voters have the ability to go around a paralyzed legislature and put matters on the ballot for a direct vote of the people, but even this populist process is increasingly abused by special interests that want to block consumers from having their day in court, or by a single company like Mercury Insurance, who thought it could fool the voters into permitting auto insurance overcharging.
Naming a thing for what it is aids understanding, which leads to action and ultimately recovery. Absent the cleansing force of honesty, we remain rooted in fear for our kids, for America’s future. Indeed, there is something deeply foreboding about the country’s degraded democracy and disabled economy. Some of the old clichés are becoming a sickening reality. We used to idly wonder, are we Rome, a corrupt empire in the process of collapse? A thoughtful, almost poetic book by that name, written by Cullen Murphy, suggests we are.
The term “third world” was once a sneer, connoting abject poverty, corruption, gross disparities between rich and poor, the absence of government services, a state controlled by a cabal of self-perpetuating leaders. Now consider the statistics on post-collapse America, which Arianna Huffington marshals in her latest book, “Third World America.”
This would be a good point to fill in the blanks in the piece I excerpted above from the New Yorker story. The missing words are: 2009, President Hamid Karzai, Afghan, presidential palace, Khalil Ferozi, Kabul Bank, Afghans. Yesterday’s New York Times reported that fraud and mismanagement at the largest bank in Afghanistan has resulted in $900 million in losses, potentially triggering a financial debacle. Kabul Bank is “too big to fail,” according to Western diplomats quoted by the Times. It’s the same story everywhere, and thus it would hardly come as a surprise if U.S. taxpayers ended up funding the bailout of Kabul Bank.