Wednesday, Dec 17, 2008, 6:52 am
Weekly Audit: A Year of Bad Decisions
As Congress finally winds down what House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass., refers to as "the session that will not die," most of us have already contracted cases of outrage exhaustion from the barrage of Wall Street-related absurdities that the government has embroiled itself in over the past year.
But do not despair! David Sirota penned two pieces this week vindicating progressive critics of the current regime, one for Salon.com and another for the Campaign for America's Future, detailing how recent reports from government agencies themselves have revealed the administration's utter failure to craft a responsible financial rescue package. With the incompetence obvious to everyone, Sirota hopes that, "Maybe, just maybe, our humiliated rulers will start listening," noting that progressives were right all along about meaningless CEO pay limits and oversight mechanisms in the $700 billion bailout, and overblown rhetoric from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
The oratorical frenzy surrounding too-big-to-fail Wall Street titans and last-ditch government bailouts has also made it easy to forget that the financial sector actually does desperately need some downsizing, as Joshua Holland reports for AlterNet.
Not only is the financial sector burdened with mountains of worthless debt instruments, it has created broader economic inefficiencies over the past decade by gobbling up a disproportionate share of the total economy. Holland presents a host of frightening statistics about the conditions leading up to the current recession, noting an 11% surge in poverty between 2000 and 2007, lower median household incomes and sluggish job growth. Almost everybody except the financiers, it seems, was hurting, and the global economy will not recover from its economic slide until the financial sector owns up to the losses inherent in its chimerical expansion.
But financial policy failures have not been limited to bad rulemaking and pro-Wall Street philosophy. Even basic anti-fraud protections that have been on the books since the 1930s are not being enforced effectively, as evidenced by the massive fraud scheme allegedly perpetrated by fund manager Bernard Madoff. The Securities and Exchange Commission received several warnings about Madoff's business practices dating back to at least 1999, according to The Wall Street Journal, but chose to ignore them until Madoff's system finally collapsed on itself this fall. As Truthdig's Ear to the Ground Blog points out, fallout from the scandal is so broad that many of those hit by the scheme "might not know yet that they're broke."
Over at The Nation, Nicholas von Hoffman notes how the risky investment practices that have led investment bankers to the public coffers this year have also dealt a massive blow to funding for U.S. colleges and universities. Harvard University has officially lost $8 billion of its endowment since June, while the University of Virginia—whose president, John Casteen, serves on the board of directors at the collapsed banking giant Wachovia—has hemorrhaged $1 billion. Students obviously did not demand that these funds be spent recklessly, but students will ultimately pay the price.
Of course, there's another bailout going on, unless Senate Republicans have their way. The faltering Detroit automobile industry is seeking about $14 billion in government funds, or slightly less than 10% of what taxpayers have already poured into insurance icon AIG, which employs few blue-collar workers and mostly produces useless debt insurance for even more useless debt circulating through Wall Street.
Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., led a Republican attack on auto unions, refusing to back a Detroit rescue package last week unless union laborers take a major pay cut. But the assault on the working class seems a little misguided, given the willingness of Congress to hurl $700 billion at U.S. banks without any strings on executive compensation.
"Citigroup's CEO is being paid $216 million this year, yet Corker made no demand that he take a whack in pay," Jim Hightower writes, even though Citi alone has accepted bailout funds worth over three times what the entire auto bailout would cost.
The chief difference between Detroit's labor costs and those of its Japan-headquartered competitors is several decades of built-up pension plans. But as Hilzoy writes in a post for The Washington Monthly, the package was already so acquiescent to Republican demands that no serious conservative negotiators would have demanded further concessions.
Republicans do not have a monopoly on economic insanity. Over at The American Prospect, Ezra Klein highlights a troubling quote from Larry Summers, who will be the head economic advisor in Barack Obama's White House next year. The passage appears in the new book Creative Capitalism, edited by lefty journalist Michael Kinsley:
"As for [Milton] Friedman -- I'm not so sure he looks bad," Summers says. "What is most screwed up today? GSEs, Citibank, regional banks. What is most regulated? Same list. What is least screwed up? Hedge funds and the like. What is least regulated?"
Summers' "most screwed up" list only holds up if you exclude unregulated firms who were so completely decimated over the past year that they have become extinct. There are no major independent Wall Street investment banks anymore. Lehman Brothers died, Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch sold to major commercial banks in emergency mergers and both Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley converted to commercial banks to avoid collapse. No regulator has oversight of the entire investment banking corporate structure, and the mega i-banks have simply disappeared.
Same goes for the private subprime mortgage firms like Ameriquest and NovaStar. Wondering why those logos disappeared from NASCAR hoods about a year ago? Those subprime lenders were completely unregulated and they all went bankrupt.
Sadly, the economy is well past the point where government action could fend off a severe recession. At this point, it's all damage control. The downturn is already hitting demand so hard that even recycling programs are on the ropes, as Air America Media's Ron Kuby discusses in a radio interview with recycling organizer Meghan McCutcheon. Cash-strapped producers are well aware of consumer pocketbook pressures, and are bunkering down to ride out the recession with as few costs as possible—including cuts in raw materials, recycled or otherwise.
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