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Obama's Wall Street Rat Pack | The Nation

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Obama's Wall Street Rat Pack

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"My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks," President Obama told the CEOs of the biggest banks when he took them to the woodshed recently. As public anger builds against the Goldman Sachs rat pack he has welcomed into the White House, the president might also reflect on his own popularity being the only thing standing between the pitchforks and some of his most prominent appointees.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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What would he tell Obama to do?

Bank of America's Ken Lewis has done his bit to reinforce the idea that the CEOs who got us into this mess are a pack of liars.

The focus of public displeasure seems to swing between Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Larry Summers, director of the National Economic Council. This is the same Summers who was run out of the presidency of Harvard University by pitchfork-wielding academics.

Suspicion and anger jumped up a peg when it was disclosed that Goldman Sachs, the bête noire of the politically disgruntled left and right, had paid Summers $135,000 to give a speech. Because Summers is always sounding off for free, the Goldman people may have dropped coins in his cup against the possibility that he might get such a job as he has gotten in the Obama White House.

At one point Summers talked to Goldman about a job for himself but instead took a multimillion-dollar position with hedge fund D.E. Shaw. According to the New York Times, Summers "seemed to fit in among Shaw's math-loving 'quants,' as devotees of math-heavy quantitative investing are known." If past Wall Street history is a guide, what the quants are up to, other than making money by manipulating mathematical symbols, we will not know until the roof falls in again.

The Times reports that D.E. Shaw, Summers's erstwhile multibillionaire boss, "does not like to talk about what goes on inside its modish headquarters near Times Square. There, esoteric trading strategies are imagined, sketched on whiteboards and modeled on supercomputers by an elite corps of math wizards and scientists, most of them unknown to the outside world."

Under the reign of the quants, mathematical whiz-bang was supposed to have taken the risk out of investing and built in guaranteed profits. In fact, under the investment structures constructed by these genii, the idiot savants of global high finance, they got rid of risk all right, and replaced profit with guaranteed sure-to-fail catastrophic loss.

Nonetheless, what should be a discredited school of economics still holds the tiller in making policy, for the Times article goes on to explain that, "At Harvard and at Shaw, Mr. Summers cultivated a small circle of financial professionals--particularly hedge fund managers--to serve as an informal brain trust. He consults with them on policy matters from his perch in the White House. Among these insiders are Kenneth D. Brody and Frank P. Brosens, the founding partners of another hedge fund, Taconic Capital Advisors, for whom Mr. Summers did consulting work from 2004 to 2006."

These people--of whom Summers is the most conspicuous--are by intellectual background, institutional associations and track record, in government or in the private sector, the last on earth to be making policy in the White House. They are the epitome of the status quo ante, the architects and apologists of Wall Street and the money monopoly system that brought us to the edge of disaster.

The Atlantic Monthly nicely describes Wall Street's monopoly profits: "From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent."

Forty cents on every dollar of profit in the United States went to a few people who misused their power to allocate investment money until they have nearly stripped the country of the ability to make a living. The Wall Street money monopoly, with its power to levy a tax on American business and enterprise, has left us underinvested, increasingly unable to compete and gasping.

Summers and his fellow consiglieri have done the intellectual dirty work so that their bosses might use their money as monarchs did when there was a divine right of kings. With their mansions, yachts and airplanes they have wasted the nation's capital in a manner that would do Louis XIV proud.

President Obama could not do better than to rid himself of that rat pack. He needs a new group of advisers to show him not how to regulate Wall Street but to emasculate it.

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