The False Debate on the Debt
This story originally appeared at Truthdig. Robert Scheer is the author of The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (Nation Books).
In the ever-so-smug company of the rich and powerful it is a given that there is never to be any expression of remorse or other acknowledgment of the pain they have inflicted on the lesser mortals they so cavalierly plunder. It’s convenient for them that the media and the politicians, which they happen to own, rarely connect the dots between the scams that made the rich so rich and the alarming rise in the federal debt that is crushing this nation.
The result of this purchased public myopia is that we are left with an absurd debate over how deeply to cut teachers’ pensions and seniors’ medical benefits while preserving tax breaks for the superrich and their large corporations. At a time when 10 million American families will have lost their homes by year’s end, when $5.6 trillion in home equity has been wiped out, when most Americans face steep unemployment rates and stagnant wages, a Democratic president is likely to compromise with Republican ideologues who insist that further cuts in taxes for the rich is the way to bring back jobs.
Let’s deal right off with that canard. There is currently no shortage of corporate profits or excessive executive compensation to explain away the failure of the private sector to create jobs. On the contrary, as the New York Times reports, “In the fourth quarter, profits at American businesses were up an astounding 29.2 percent, the fastest growth in more than 60 years. Collectively, American corporations logged profits at an annual rate of $1.678 trillion.” And to add insult to injury, the top executives, who seem unable or unwilling to create jobs or adequately reward their workers, have increased their own compensation by a whopping 12 percent over the previous year, setting the median pay at $9.6 million per year for those in control of the leading 200 companies. The Times adds that “CEO pay is also on the rise again at companies like Capital One and Goldman Sachs, which survived the economic storm with the help of all of those taxpayer-financed bailouts.”
Lost in this faux debate is the reality that our debt now looms so large because the government had to bail out many of those same corporations, quite a few of which, like General Electric and AIG, pay no taxes and have no problem paying truly obscene amounts to their top executives. GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, whom President Barack Obama named chairman of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, is making as much as he did before the recession hit, a recession that his GE Capital division did much to cause with its reckless loans. AIG, saved with a government infusion of $170 billion, has just lavishly rewarded its top executives but has providing no relief for the homeowners ripped off by its phony credit default swaps.
The AIG deal was engineered by then-President of the New York Fed Timothy Geithner, who was rewarded for his efforts to save the bankers by being named Obama’s treasury secretary. Geithner, an energetic member of the team of Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers that ran Treasury when the Bill Clinton administration cooperated with Congressional Republicans in gutting regulation of the financial community, is proud of saving the banks from the wreckage that they and the Clinton policies caused. Last October he proclaimed the TARP banker bailout program “the most effective government program in recent memory.”
What he is referring to is that in order to escape the federal restrictions on executive compensation, the banks have been eager to pay back the TARP funds. What he and other apologists for the Obama and George W. Bush administrations’ Bankers First program choose to ignore—as Paul Atkins and two other members of the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program revealed in a damning Wall Street Journal column titled “TARP Was No Win for the Taxpayers”—is that the banks are not paying back the trillions of dollars in non-TARP governmental assistance that saved them from bankruptcy. “It hides the full story of the government’s financial crisis effort, of which TARP is but a minor part,” the op-ed column said of the maneuvering. The major part is the $1.1 trillion in toxic-mortgage-based securities that the Fed purchased, relieving the banks of their obligations, and the $380 billion bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, organizations that backed those securities, along with “other Fed and FDIC programs [that] added another $2 trillion of taxpayer money at risk to the 19 stress-tested banks alone.”
What Geithner celebrates is a shell game of his own construction in which far more costly federal programs, with no serious restrictions on banker greed, were used by the banks to “repay” the TARP funds. Nothing was obtained in return from those banks in the way of mortgage cramdowns to keep people in their homes or any restrictions on the interest rates that banks charge on credit cards: Clearly usurious rates of more than 25 percent are now the norm for those struggling to keep their families above water. No wonder consumer confidence is down, the housing market is expected to decline an additional 10 percent over the next year, and the job market is predicted by most of the experts to stagnate for years to come. Continued tax breaks for the 1 percent of the population that controls 40 percent of the nation’s wealth will do nothing to restore the confidence of the other 99 percent of consumers who are suffering so.
This at least Obama seems to understand, but count on him to betray his own better instincts by once again following the advice of his treasury secretary and the Wall Street crowd that contributed so lavishly to his first presidential campaign and whose support he seeks once again.
Robert Scheer is the author of The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street (Nation Books).