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Time (Money, and the Media) Is on Wall Street's Side, Yes It Is | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Time (Money, and the Media) Is on Wall Street's Side, Yes It Is

My new “Think Again” column is called “Crashing Occupy Wall Street” and it’s here.

My new Nation column on the nuttiness of Times pundit Thomas Friedman is here.

My Forward column on my kid’s Commie Humanities reading list is here.

Alter-reviews:
There’s a bunch of new Library of America releases. My favorite might be The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael edited by Sanford Schwartz, though it loses points for coming outside the format of the series. I don’t know why Kael was not thought to rate the full treatment. She’s one of the most exciting writers to publish on any topic in the second half of the twentieth century. Her essay on Cary Grant, is, as I’ve said before, brilliant and beautiful. It is a model of the kind of critical intelligence that has (almost, but not quite) disappeared from our contemporary political and cultural life.

Another big ticket item from LOA this season is:

Philip Roth
The American Trilogy 1997–2000
American Pastoral • I Married a Communist • The Human Stain
Enough has been written about these books so that I don’t think I need to say too much. I like “Communist” much better than most people and “Pastoral” less than most. I’m persuaded that in Pastoral, Roth is punishing Swede for trying to pretend he’s not Jewish, which is interesting, though some might find it objectionable. For the record I should like to note that the liveliest passages in the book are the Nathan Zuckerman ones, and I happened to have gone to the exact same Mets game that Zuckerman is allegedly attending and apparently Roth did too. “Stain” has already achieved a kind of classic status and it’s pretty great.

Also out recently is:

Kurt Vonnegut
Novels & Stories 1963–1973
Cat’s Cradle • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater • Slaughterhouse-Five • Breakfast of Champions • Stories

I’ve not read Vonnegut since college, but when I saw this collection, I thought it was a greatest hits volume. Other, more devoted readers might complain, and if you’re one of those, well, here’s to you. Otherwise, this one will be enough for most people, I’m guessing. The collection I’m not so crazy about is Andy Borowitz’s alleged 50 Funniest American Writers*: An Anthology of Humor from Mark Twain to The Onion. I don’t want to get into a fight with Andy, but a) a number of these pieces are not funny at all b) another number are funny but are not even close to being the funniest piece by the person in question (Woody Allen, Calvin Trillin, Veronica Geng). 

But hey, ¾ and you’re batting 750…

Perhaps the biggest of the big ticket items I’m happy to have in my house is part of the new trend by record companies to repackage the complete works of a single artist in a uniform package. Last week I discussed Pink Floyd, this week it’s Leonard Cohen. It’s 17 cds. Unlike the Floyd, they’re not remastered. But also unlike Floyd, you don’t need to be wasted to make it through any of them. I’ve sort of run out of superlatives when it comes to LC. Let’s just say there is literally nobody who is more worthy of this honor. And unlike many of the people one can imagine in this category. And if you listen to them in order, the dude just keeps on getting better. Like Roth, he’s an inspiration to those of us who plan to keep doing what we do until we drop. Cohen, moreover is a good choice for “complete-ists” because as beloved as he may be, most people don’t have all of his albums. You can find details here.

I’ve been going to New York Film Festival screenings for the past couple of weeks. The festival began last weekend, I believe, and so far I can strongly recommend:
“Goodbye First Love”
“Melancholia”
“Policeman”
I can sort of recommend “Martha Macy May Marlene.”
And I can totally recommend against “4:44 Last Day on Earth.”

There were also three German movies about the same sequence of events by three different German directors told from three different perspectives. It’s a pretty cool idea, but I only saw one of them. I forget its name.

This weekend I’ll be seeing a bunch more movies at the Hamptons International Film Festival. It starts today and there’s some overlap.

Now here’s Reed:

Time (Money, and the Media) is on Wall Street’s Side, Yes It Is
By Reed Richardson
For liberals frustrated with the economic inequality plaguing the country, this past week might have engendered some noticeable optimism. First, traditional media coverage of the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement began to move beyond trite dismissals and formulaic, protestors-clash-with-police stories. Then, federal regulators unveiled a draft of the so-called Volcker rule that would roll back the kinds of reckless trades among banks and investment firms that fueled the 2008 financial crisis. Indeed, the headlines that accompanied the latter must have read like sweet justice to the fed-up folks at Occupy protests proliferating cross the country.

Putting the Clamps on Banks – Wall Street Journal
Banks fume over ‘Volcker rule’ – Politico
Republican SEC official voices Volcker worries – Marketwatch.com
Volcker Rule Is Out, How Much Will It Hurt? – Forbes.com
Volcker Rule Unveiled: May Slash Wall Street Bonuses – ABCNews.com

But if these headlines sound too good to be true, well, they are. In reality, much of the media’s reportage about the Volcker rule was both short-sighted and disingenuous. Too often, the press forged ahead while ignoring or barely acknowledging the proposed rule’s draft status, which is sort of like a sportswriter filing a Mets game story without mentioning that he left the ballpark after the third inning. What’s more, the media, in giving financial industry flacks ample time and space to gnash their teeth over “slashed” bonuses and “lost” revenue, served to undermine the proposed regulations by hyping their potential impact. Critics who claimed the new regulations were, in fact, too soft on the banks received far less attention. (Even harder to find were details like the fact that the word “exemption” appears 426 times in the 298-page rule.)

Not to be outdone in subtly pushing this anti-Volcker, woe-be-the-banks narrative, Fox Business dutifully trotted out an “exclusive” on how the Republican-controlled House plans to hold hearings next month about the supposedly onerous burdens the new rules would place on the financial sector.

Many on Wall Street have criticized the impact of the Volcker Rule for squeezing bank profits, and causing layoffs. Others question whether practices like proprietary trading and hedge-fund investing were at the heart of the Wall Street risk-taking that led to the 2008 financial collapse.

[…]

“The hearing will be looking at the economic impact and the competitiveness of this rule,” said Marisol Garibay, the communications director for the Financial Services committee. “No one has looked at the cumulative impact of these regulations.”

Of course, these same unnamed critics of the Volcker rule would rather the public forgets what a lack of sufficient regulations in the previous decade hath wrought, when ethically compromised and criminally negligent financial institutions ran amok and ultimately wrecked our economy. And lo and behold, some of these transgressions included securities fraud involving proprietary trading, the very thing the Volcker rule is trying to curtail—and that this Fox Business report is trying to excuse.

Ominously, this journalistic amnesia is increasingly widespread. And while Fox News’ muddying of the waters regarding the causes of the 2008 financial crisis no doubt leans more toward overt, political propaganda and less toward the editorial laziness that grips much of rest of the establishment media, the “cumulative impact” of this coverage, to borrow a phrase, can’t be overlooked.

Then again, it’s probably a fool’s errand to expect either Fox News or the current GOP House leadership to do anything but apologize for the very architects or our nation’s ongoing financial crisis. After all, it’s no secret that the deck is stacked in favor of Wall Street when the House committee chairman in charge of bank oversight, Rep. Spencer Bachus, is also known for saying: “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve.” This business-friendly rhetoric isn’t just the result of pure, conservative principles, one strongly suspects, since Bachus has an uncanny tendency of putting his mouth where his money is. It seems the big banks and investment houses are at least getting a good return on their investments somewhere.

Still, the prospect of a Congressional committee chairman being a wholly owned subsidiary of the industry he or she is charged with regulating is certainly not a new phenomenon on Capitol Hill. A presidential candidate inexplicably calling for the imprisonment of the namesake sponsors of a piece of Congressional legislation does take a new, low road, however. And that’s exactly what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did at the latest GOP presidential debate Tuesday night. Even more disturbing, perhaps, the rest of the Republican presidential field appeared similarly untroubled with the idea that the only people worthy of being imprisoned in connection with the vast financial crisis of the past three-plus years happen to be the two Congressmen who shepherded through democratically-passed legislation to prevent the next financial crisis.

Now, I grant that Gingrich’s decade-long, on-again, off-again presidential campaign/book tour represents one of the longest cons in American political history (making a certain, former half-term Alaska governor look like a two-bit grifter in comparison). Likewise, I get that his shtick in these recent GOP debates has been to play the role of the most articulate crazy person on stage. But still, the media’s collective shrug over such an incendiary charge as well as the noticeable absence of any objections from the other GOP candidates is inexcusable. Debate moderator Charlie Rose actually interrupted Gingrich in order to give him a chance to immediately disavow his provocative comments, as if to say: “Surely, you’re not this crazy?” To which, Gingrich, batting Rose away, essentially replied, “Surely, I am.”

It is this unadulterated strategy among the Republicans to absolve the financial sector of as much of the blame for the Great Recession as possible, and the mainstream media’s seeming acquiescence with their quest, that makes the long-term prospects for real financial reform so dim. For example, as the major headlines this week fixated on the banks’ very public poor-mouthing over the Volcker rule, the Wall Street Journal’s MarketBeat blog, to its credit, found that, in private, the financial industry strikes a much more sanguine tone. As one major market advisor observed in a MarketBeat post from Wednesday:

Why is working through this doc largely pointless? Because it is unlikely to ever be implemented in anything that resembles the current form. The rules are meant to be in a final form by July 21, 2012. Assuming that deadline is met, the banks then have 2 years to conform with the provisions and can petition the board for up to 3 additional 1-year extensions. Which brings us to July 21, 2014 at the earliest, and possibly July, 2017. Whether or not there is a new government in place before the 2014 deadline, there will certainly be another administration and president in place by 2017. Whatever the banks ultimately have to live with, it is highly unlikely that it will resemble this. [emphasis in original]

Time and Republican intransigence is on their side, in other words, as is money and complexity. Besides all its “exemptions,” the Volcker rule regulations contain, by one estimate, 1,347 unanswered questions. Who, pray tell, do you think will have the resources to come up with 1,347 laissez-faire answers for regulators? The usual, well-funded suspects. And though the Occupy Wall Street movement may own the public sidewalks for the near future, this Journal article (full article behind paywall) from Wednesday, stuck inside the same section that had the Volcker rule “clamping down” on banks on its front page, provides plenty of proof that the real battles over financial reform and income inequality are still taking place in the private backrooms of power:

Financial-industry representatives met with the Treasury Department, Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Securities and Exchange Commission or Commodity Futures Trading Commission 350 times, according to Ms. Krawiec’s analysis and meeting logs reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Representatives of unions, consumer groups, other Volcker-rule proponents and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker have met with the same agencies 20 times since the Dodd-Frank law passed in July 2010.

Ms. Krawiec, the Duke law professor, said the numbers show financial firms “won hands down” in terms of regulatory face time. “The meeting logs paint a picture of a very one-sided lobbying campaign, with Wall Street’s influence, information and pressure crowding out all the other voices.”

Outlobbying, outspending, and outlasting—these are the advantages that Wall Street will retain if the only forces arrayed against it are the street protestors occupying Zuccotti Park and elsewhere. To affect real financial reform and reverse the growing income inequality in this country, it will take a more concerted political effort across a larger, public stage. But without a more intrepid press exposing the truth along the way, reality, I fear, will never match the headlines.

Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this post suggested that the anthology of the 50 Funniest American Writers did not include a contribution by George W. S. Trow, which it does. This post has been revised to correct that mistake.

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