By proposing financial reforms that won't curb Wall Street excess, U.S. policymakers have offered an unacceptably weak response to our enormous financial crisis. If voters don't demand that their elected representatives help workers and consumers instead of simply boosting corporate profits, the economic downturn will last for several more years and leave the economy vulnerable to another bank-induced meltdown.
The banks have unbelievable lobbying clout. In an interview with Cenk Uyger of The Young Turks, Heather Booth, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, describes how one-sided the Wall Street reform fight has been. Despite broad public support for a fundamental financial overhaul, going up against the bank lobby is, as Booth describes, "a David and Goliath fight." It's basically Americans for Financial Reform against every major corporation in the U.S.
Booth notes that the Chamber of Commerce has vowed to spend $100 million on a campaign to defend the "so-called free enterprise system"—you know, the "free market"—in which corporate lobbyists spend millions of dollars to write the rules of the economic game. Just seven financial lobby groups have spent a massive $147 million peddling influence over the past two years.
In fact, as Janine Wedel observes for Salon, the U.S. economic system is starting to look an awful lot like the clannish systems of government that looted Eastern European countries in the early 1990s. Today, the public good takes a backseat to the narrow interests of powerful corporations.
With the Obama administration working with advisers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, we're not just watching Wall Street write its own regulations. We're watching the financial sector re-write the official role of the government in the economy. In this new role, the government's top priority is securing profits for corporate America.
"The intertwined coterie of financial and policy deciders in the United States is creating not only the financial architecture of the future, backed by the power and billions of the state, but, more generally, new relationships between the bureaucracy and the market," Wedel writes.
GRITtv's Laura Flanders echoes this theme in an interview with John Perkins, author of Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and journalist Russ Baker. Lobbyists have so thoroughly hijacked the U.S. economy, Perkins argues, that the nation's government now resembles those of Latin American nations he worked with in the 1980s and 1990s.
"I don't think the U.S. president has much power these days, to be honest with you… . It's the big corporate executives who call the shots today, and let's face it, they financed Obama's campaign," Perkins says.
The very efforts the government deployed to save the financial system are being perverted to create another disaster. In a five-part interview with Paul Jay of The Real News, Jane D'Arista, an influential economist and author of The Evolution of U.S. Finance, explains how Wall Street destroyed itself over the past decade. By borrowing massive amounts of money, Wall Street was able to place bigger bets in the capital markets casino, resulting in huge profits when those bets paid off. But when the bets backfired, the losses were just as massive. Companies couldn't pay them off, so the government stepped in to support them.
One of those support mechanisms came from the Federal Reserve, which began making incredibly cheap loans to firms that engaged predominantly in speculative trading. The Fed used to lend exclusively to commercial banks, which used the money to make loans that helped grow the real economy. But now those loans are being used to support risky securities trading, so we're seeing big profits in the financial sector, without much help for workers and consumers. This is a major long-term problem—if the economy can't keep pace with the Wall Street casino, those speculative trades are going to backfire and we'll be right back to the chaos of September 2008, only with an even weaker economy.
All hope is not lost. As Perkins and Baker emphasize in their interview with Flanders, citizens have to demand corporate accountability and a government that actually serves the public good. For much of the past decade in Latin America, governments have been elected that stood up to major corporations and demanded that they stop pillaging their nation's resources at the people's expense.
In addition to demanding much stronger reforms for the financial sector, we have to demand that the government respond seriously to problems facing workers. With the unemployment rate at 10.2% and expected to go still higher, we need jobs. As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, Obama's economic stimulus package helped stave off total economic devastation. What we need now is another stimulus to get people back to work, not just slow the pace of job losses.
"A bold, ambitious jobs bill can make a huge difference—the stimulus got us out of the ditch, a new effort can get us going in the right direction again," Benen writes.
And the only argument against this plan is that we "can't afford it." That is—the government's fiscal deficit is too high, and we just can't spend money to help people in real economic trouble.
But as Christopher Hayes writes for The Nation, the deficit excuse is pretty pathetic. Economic stimulus bolsters economic growth, thus improving tax returns for the government in the future. And any spending on any project can be taken out of the budget from other measures. Hayes notes that our massive military spending is almost never included in discussions about "fiscal responsibility." If we were really worried about how much it would cost to fix the economy, we could stop spending so much money killing people.
"Fiscal conservatism and deficit concern is nearly always code speak in Washington for something else," Hayes writes. "Most often, when someone in Washington says they're concerned about the deficit, what they're really saying is, 'I would like to make sure we have a government that focuses maximally on blowing people up.'"
The government has to start saying 'no' to corporate America. Corporate profits are not the same thing as a strong economy. We need to demand an economic policy that answers to workers, not just bank balance sheets.
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