The fragile and faltering state of American democracy.
James Dimon, chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co., speaks at a conference, Tuesday, October 27, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
JPMorgan Chase, the star of mega-banks, is up against the wall at the Justice Department, trying to settle its myriad crimes for $13 billion. That’s real money, even for a trillion-dollar bank. So this is progress. After years of scandalous indifference, the Obama administration appears to have found its backbone.
Better late than never, grumpy citizens can say. But that doesn’t settle the matter. Four years ago, Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware crisply described the more fundamental problem posed by the wantonly reckless behemoths of Wall Street.
“People know that if they rob a bank they will go to jail,” Kaufman said. “Bankers should know that if they rob people they will go to jail too.” Can we hear an amen on that? Not yet. But the complaint Kaufman voiced repeatedly is now on the table. “At the end of the day,” the senator warned, “This is a test of whether we have one justice system in this country or two. If we do not treat a Wall Street firm that defrauded investors of millions of dollars the same way we treat someone who stole $500 from a cash register, then how can we expect our citizens to have any faith in the rule of law?” (See my piece from April 2011, “How Wall Street Crooks Get Out of Jail Free.”)
Attorney General Eric Holder was stung, his reputation severely damaged. His lieutenants in the criminal division explained repeatedly that while the megacrimes seemed obvious, it is fiendishly difficult to locate the people in a huge, complex financial organization who can be successfully prosecuted as criminals. The popular anger did not go away, however, because in JPMorgan’s case the outrages only got larger and more obvious.
So here we are four years later and leading newspapers report that Justice is on the brink of a record-setting settlement—$13 billion. Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan CEO and formerly the president’s favorite banker, has personally negotiated the terms with the attorney general. The Morgan bank started with an offer of $1 billion and quickly raised it to $4 billion. Holder’s office kept saying, no, not enough. According to The New York Times, seven federal agencies are investigating the bank, plus state banking regulators and a couple of foreign governments.
The offenses include an all-star list of duped victims—of mortgage fraud against home-buyers, investor fraud against people and pension funds that purchased the rotten mortgage securities and defrauded the federal agencies (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) that bought the mortgage bonds and applied federal guarantees to them. Nevertheless, if there is no identifiable “criminal” who can be sent to jail, the case could be treated as merely another bureaucratic crime and adjudicated with lots of cash, a very familiar exercise in this era of high-flying capitalist buccaneers and bandits.
But here is the exciting and suspenseful element in this story. Eric Holder and his prosecutors have so far refused to settle on such amicable terms. Federal prosecutors in Sacramento believe they have established the personal linkage—who ordered the dirty deals, who carried them out—that could support criminal indictments of individuals or against the corporate “person” known as JPMorgan Chase. That would be truly unprecedented—a “game changer” in Wall Street/Washington parlance—and with threatening potential for the defendant bank.
In the negotiations, Holder has refused to give Dimon what he seems to want most—an agreement to drop the criminal charge and settle for bigger money instead. That might weaken the storm of private lawsuits already filed by the victims of JPMorgan’s fraudulent profiteering. The star banker kept raising his bid. The AG kept saying no way. Americans should stay tuned and maybe send fan mail to the Justice Department, urging the prosecutors to hang tough.
But you can’t send a bank to jail, can you? No, but you could place it under court supervision and empower a federal judge to order and supervise internal reforms in the megabank, perhaps even downsizing. Does that sound too harsh? If the feds can do this to a corrupt labor union like the Teamsters, why not to an outlaw bank like JPMorgan?
Larry Summers. (Reuters/Jason Reed)
The Sunday afternoon announcement that Larry Summers is giving up his quest to become Federal Reserve chairman resonates with meaning for reform—both for government and the Democratic party. After several decades of dominance by the center-right financial perspectives of New Democrats, this is a huge loss for the Rubin-Clinton wing. And it foretells more to come.
When the Obama White House let it be known in early summer the president expected to appoint Summers as successor to Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, the party erupted in rage and rebellion. It amounted to rewarding the very policy architects who led the country into ruin with their financial deregulation and Wall Street–friendly non-enforcement and bailouts for the too big to fail bankers. Instead of going along meekly, progressive Dems built a firestorm against Summers and kept throwing on new logs.
The White House leakers kept reassuring favored reporters that the deal was done, the president really wants Larry in this pivotal position determining policy on money and credit for the country. Leading reform senators—Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley—fired back and raised the ante. If Summers is nominated, these key members of the Senate banking committee intend to vote against his confirmation. That could well be fatal to Summers’s and Obama’s ambitions. To make it worse, Senator John Tester of Montana, a moderate by any measure, let it be known he would join them in voting to block Summers. Among other disabilities, Summers was contemptuous of policy opponents and known for refusing to acknowlege collosal errors—the very opposite of a consensus leader.
Finally, the White House mercifully pulled the plug on flawed Larry. (It seems very unlikely Summers got the message on his own, considering his record for stubborn egotism.)
This is a huge victory for the prospects for genuine economic reform—well beyond anything Obama has so far proposed or accepted. The president might fumble around for a similarly conservative appointment, but he has a chance to change the outlook dramatically by appointing a new Fed chair who understands the deep dislocations created in part by Federal Reserve policy during the last three decades, from Volcker to Greenspan to Bernanke, under Democrats as well as Republicans.
Obama can start the healing by naming Janet Yellen, the moderately liberal vice chair of the Federal Reserve, who well understands that much deeper change must be considered to get the US economy back in balance again. It will not come quickly, but this can be the political watershed—the moment when this Democratic president chose to focus on the future rather than clinging to the failed past.
In other words, Obama can create a quite different legacy for himself by restarting his economic policy and encouraging serious reform at the central bank and in traditonal policies. The president of course cannot complete this new agenda in his remaining years, but he can launch the action and teach public opinion what the task of economic reconstruction should involve. That is, he can begin the “new politics” many of us had hoped he would bring to Washington.
In the next few months, as it happens, President Obama will appoint four and as many as five new governors for the seven-member Federal Reserve Board. That is an unprecedented opportunity to influence the future if he chooses wisely and reaches beyond the usual list of safe choices with conventional views. The best part is this power is unilateral. This is one instance where Barack Obama doesn’t have to make nice with know-nothing Republicans or seek permission from Wall Street titans. He can do this on his own.
But the defeat of Larry Suummers tells the White House and this president they had better start listening to the restless reformers on the left of the party. Senators and progressive Democrats in the House have serious ideas for reform. Having won this pivotal victory, they are sure to push for larger goals. Instead of running away from the liberal-labor progressives, Obama’s presidency should put an arm around them.
John Nichols rejoices in the populist rebellion that brought down Larry Summers.
Secretary of State John Kerry, flanked by Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, September 3, 2013, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Whatever Congress decides to do about bombing Syria, the United States is still trapped by a historic contradiction of its own invention. Our open-ended commitment to deter or punish bad guys anywhere around the world has not led to the peaceful vision of military planners and humanitarian hawks. It leads instead to more war—longer and more ambiguous conflicts in which there will be no victory, only abstract claims about teaching lessons to wayward nations.
The American Goliath, armed with awesomely superior weaponry and described as “indispensable” by admiring scholars, seems to have forgotten an ancient truth the Greeks and Romans understood. War is about purposeful violence, not diplomacy by other means.
In history, the fundamental objective of war has always been brutally obvious: the conquest of real estate and resources, the subjugation of other peoples. For two generations, the US has gone to war claiming nobler purposes, the protection and liberation of helpless others. But, our statesmen add, the defense of world peace requires us occasionally to go to war pre-emptively. Shoot the bad guys before they can shoot us.
The American people evidently understand this now and want no part of it. They are overwhelmingly fed up with intervening in other people’s wars. Iraq and Afghanistan taught bitter lessons. The experiences told Americans to disregard whatever presidents and intelligence officials claim to see as an imminent threat. The patriotic exhortations from governing elites in Washington now disparage “isolationist” sentiments, but constituents back home simply want a more rational definition of “national self-interest.”
Goliath may be having some sort of nervous breakdown. He sounds confused and conflicted, muscle-bound and unsure of himself. The American arsenal can destroy targets and people 1,000 miles away but it now promises it won’t deploy any American soldiers to the battlefields where people are being killed. US war plans keep changing—hotter, colder, then limited or maybe not. Our moral justifications get muddied when we learn that the supposed good guys in Syria—our rebel allies—commit war crimes too (executing prisoners with a bullet to the back of the head).
Nobody knows, of course, but it is conceivable this war of confusion could evolve into a stunning historical shift—the moment when militarism and the military-industrial complex begin to lose their iron grip on US politics. The arms industry still dominates the domestic economy and will remain influential when good jobs are still scarce. In past wars, whenever Americans were sent to fight abroad, the people quickly rallied ’round the flag. Popular patriotism soars in wartime. Only after bitter losses accumulate do people begin to turn against the war and want out.
This time feels different. People generally are already antiwar. The high-minded Goliath devoted to defending global peace is now preoccupied with crippling domestic weaknesses. This is new ground for the world’s only superpower—unlike anything that has faced Washington since its triumphant role in World War II. Governing authorities, if they are wise, ought to recognize the longstanding political order is now highly vulnerable and back away before there are explosive reactions. Yet it is not easy for either the president or Congress to accept strategic retreat from the nation’s bloated ambition to run the world. Ultimately, these adjustments cannot be avoided but they can also not be achieved without producing humiliation and recrimination for the country.
Oddly enough, Americans will probably feel safer once they are liberated from the all-purpose myth of an all-powerful Goliath who is always ready to fight another war. But here is the hard part: digging out of decades of myth-making and propaganda, asking honest questions about how the country got into its peculiar dilemma and how it might get out. I tried to explain the core problem with our military strategy in a book I wrote four years ago, Come Home, America:
“The US military, despite its massive firepower and technological brilliance, has itself become the gravest threat to our peace and security. Americans may find this accusation disturbing, but I hope they will consider it seriously. Our risks and vulnerabilities around the world are magnified and multiplied because the American military has shifted from providing national defense to taking the offensive worldwide, from being a vigilant defender to being an adventurous aggressor in search of enemies.”
Go looking for enemies in the world, you are likely to find some. How did this happen? Officials still talk about “national defense” as though Americans only want to protect their homeland—to be left alone in Fortress America. But that hasn’t been US strategy for more than sixty years. After the triumphant US role in World War II, America and allies agreed they should not dismantle peace-keeping military power and allow rabid dictators to arise unchallenged. Never again. The United Nations and NATO and the Marshall Plan were intended remedies.
Rearmament seemed reasonable until it swiftly became the Cold War rivalry and nuclear arms race. Starting in Korea, both super powers underwrote or clandestinely fought scores of shadowy proxy wars for hegemony in developing countries. It was ugly business with staggering bloodshed. Millions died in the name of competing ideology.
The basic problem was this: given the nuclear threat, neither side could really afford to win. They could injure the opposition, decapitate its leadership, cause economic havoc and foment social rebellions. But the one thing neither side dared was to fight a full-out war and win total victory.
This practical legacy of stalemate led to bitter frustrations, at least on the American side, first in Korea, then Vietnam. The United States bombed the stuffings out of North Vietnam but always rejected hawkish fervor for using nukes. American conservatives like Senator Strom Thurmond sounded a bristling campaign declaration: “Why not victory?”
For many Americans, it sounded like a fair question, maybe still does for some. But the battle cry also revealed the essential trap that still binds the hands of America and other major powers. Yes, the US could totally obliterate any minor country that gives us a hard time. But, no, that would not bring peace to the world nor stability. More likely, it would produce horrendous bloodshed and perhaps a twenty-first-century version of world war.
So the United States plays peacemaker and pleads for cooperation from friendly allies and on occasion drops a few explosives here and there to demonstrate its sincerity. But, no, it doesn’t want to do a war. Or at least it doesn’t want to win the war. The US only wants to send to a message: behave or we will rough you up. If you listen to Barack Obama’s rhetoric, you can hear the contradictions. He is simultaneously asking to enforce world order and uphold moral principle, but not by conquering Syria or Iran or any other uncooperative nations. He proposes to bomb a little here and there, win their respect by degrading their capabilities, then talk. These are the new euphemisms for humanitarian war-making, and they are not very convincing.
Killing is still killing. The political debate dumps blame on Obama or Congress or the Pentagon, but the dilemma really belongs to the nation and to other nations trying to uphold principles. My notion of progress would be a rule that says no country can go to war for diplomatic purposes or to demonstrate a bargaining position. If victory is unimaginable, then maybe the war should be unlawful. Killing people to influence negotiations seems about as as immoral as spraying innocent bystanders with poison gas.
The Friday and Thursday editions of The Washington Post are seen in Washington, Friday, August 3, 2007. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
When the news broke that The Washington Post had been sold to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Linda and I were lost in melancholy for awhile. It felt like a death in the family, the fond uncle we hadn’t seen in years. Or maybe we were simply mourning our own lost youth and those golden memories of fast times at the Post.
It was exhilarating to be part of the Post crowd in those scrappy days of the late 1960s and ’70s. I was on the national staff and Linda contributed articles, reviews and essays on food, family life, gardening and design. We felt in the midst of national tumult and tragedy, the dreadful war in Vietnam, racial upheavals and triumphs. In DC, these felt like local stories, and the Post was always in the middle of events.
On rare occasions, some of us were invited to attend a sit-down dinner party with the power elite at the Georgetown mansion of Katharine Graham, the Post’s patrician publisher. I remember one of these where reporters and wives (not many female reporters in those days) were huddled in one drawing room while the “war criminals” (her friends Kissinger and McNamara) were in another. Mrs. Graham tried without much success to get the two sides to mingle. She thought we should talk.
It was thirty years ago when I left the Post. Yet the news of its fate still feels personal to us. The newsroom was intense in those days, because executive editor Ben Bradlee inspired an edgy, competitive attitude among the reporters. Get it first, get it right. Go for impact. Tell the story with style and drama. And keep your elbows up, lest “bigfoot” reporters try to horn in on your story. The place often resembled a locker room at halftime, loose and profane, very masculine.
A French sociologist hung out with us in the newsroom for several months in order to compare The Washington Post with Le Monde. His study concluded that Bradlee had created an “entrepreneurial” spirit among reporters and editors (though Bradlee would never have said anything that stuffy). Bradlee was a Boston Brahmin who majored in classics at Harvard, but he talked like a street-smart sailor. I remember columnist Mark Shields once teased him for being one of those high-born characters with a three-syllable middle name—Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee. Bradlee smiled and may have responded with an obscene hand gesture.
This is part of where the Post’s greatness came from. The paper in those days was utterly outmatched by The New York Times and its thorough, sober coverage. But we played off the Times’s stuffiness. We had fun puncturing conventional wisdom and telling the informal truth about the powerful (sometimes including the publisher’s best friends). We were encouraged to take chances. If you fell on your butt, nobody helped you up.
Into this volatile stew in the early ’70s came two very young reporters from the metro staff, which only covered local news. They picked up on a third-rate police story and stayed with it until they eventually brought down the president. What is the chance of that ever happening again? It is still breathtaking to recall that Woodward and Bernstein were only in their late 20s at the time. Imagine the risks. Older heads from the national staff urged Bradlee to put more experienced reporters on the case before these two kids got the Post into deep trouble. He listened and worried, but he stuck with them. Their lack of cynicism is what got the story.
Katharine Graham, the gutsy publisher, was the other part of the greatness. She was stuck with the epic risk—a live possibility that her family’s newspaper could be destroyed if Woodward and Bernstein were wrong. Given her status among Washington’s governing elite, her fortitude was especially impressive. Graham and Bradlee, working together, were like an electrical charge—a self-sustaining mix of audacity and courage.
Notwithstanding her boarding-school good manners, Mrs. Graham had a bluntness that, if anything, was more sharp-pointed than Bradlee’s. I experienced this several times in the newsroom when she stopped by my desk to express her strong feelings about something I had written. On one occasion, I had disparaged some of her best friends as the “junior varsity” of the Best and Brightest who got us into the Vietnam War. She didn’t like this at all, but conceded that my view was probably shared by many readers. On another occasion, her tone was considerably harsher. I had written about the Post’s labor troubles and expressed some sympathy for the union printers being displaced by new technology. As she talked to me, almost nose to nose, other reporters backed away as if the publisher had dropped a grenade at my feet.
The point, however, is that nothing happened afterward. My career did not go up in flames. She expressed herself and walked away and that was it. She became my model of the ideal publisher—candid in her strong views but not vindictive. After all, it was her newspaper.
Don Graham, her son, inherited very different challenges—technological changes that basically destroyed the business model for profitable newspapers. Until digital came along, he focused on building a broader base of localized support for the Post and largely succeeded when other newspapers were withering. He wanted a newspaper that would feel close to an extraordinary diversity of people, rich and poor, white and black and Asian and Latino, city and suburbs and small towns. For many years, he succeeded while other big-city newspapers were shrinking, though he probably didn’t get the credit he deserved. The digital revolution changed all that.
In the end, Don Graham’s singular act of courage in selling the paper was in recognizing that the Post probably has a more promising future with Jeff Bezos as the innovative owner instead of the Graham family. We do not yet know if Bezos will be up to maintaining the same public values. This requires more than money.
The more Linda and I talked over our warm memories, we came out at the same place: feeling good about the past. Feeling very lucky to have been there. For fifteen years or so we got to experience what was maybe the very best time and place ever to be a reporter and writer at the most dynamic newspaper in the country. Because we know something about how and why that came about, we do not expect the same combination of people and events to come again anytime soon, or maybe ever again. The past was rare, but it is also past. We feel grateful we were there.
What does Jeff Bezos have to do with neoliberal education reforms and charter schools?
Lawrence Summers waits to be introduced before delivering a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, March 13, 2009. (Reuters/Molly Riley)
This is the second post in William Greider’s series about Larry Summers. His first post is “Stop Larry Summers Before He Messes Up Again.”
Among his other outstanding attributes, Lawrence Summers is perhaps most distinguished by his mendacity. I have encountered this up close over the years in interviews. He bristles and turns nasty when his assertions are challenged. I am not naïve about untruth in politics—I know it well—but Summers takes it to extremes. Three years ago, he made an appearance on the PBS NewHour that blew out my tolerance. I posted an exasperated blog titled “Professor Pants-on-Fire.”
“How can I say this nicely?” I wrote. “Larry Summers is a clumsy public liar. His noxious, condescending manner helps explain why he failed as president of Harvard. But it is the crude mendacity that ought to bother people now. The man is President Obama’s top economic adviser.”
I ticked off some of the self-serving lies he told to cover up his own role in destabilizing the financial system when he was Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration—when he personally blocked tougher regulation on the financial time bombs known as derivatives, when he collaborated with Republicans and the Federal Reserve in dismantling Glass-Steagall and other New Deal protections. Larry and Bill, Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan paved the road to financial collapse. Afterwards, nobody went to jail.
These scandalous matters are relevant once again because the White House propagandists are pushing hard to make Larry Summers the next Federal Reserve chairman. If Obama makes that choice, Wall Street wins again. Summers is their candidate and at home in their money culture. As Fed chair, he would become their main watchdog .
If so, this will be a sick joke on us hopeful voters who re-elected the president last fall. Summers worked on Wall Street after he got bounced as Harvard president and before he joined the Obama administration in 2009. During the year before, he earned $5.2 million at a leading hedge fund, D.E. Shaw.
Then he made another $2.8 million for speeches, more than forty of them, mostly delivered to audiences at mega-banks and leading financial firms. These included JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and others. Goldman Sachs paid him $135,000 for one speech. When Summers learned Merrill Lynch was receiving federal bailout money, he gracefully contributed his $45,000 speaking fee to charity. The point is, this watchdog will know some of the swindlers personally.
These sticking points about his nomination for the Fed chair may be obvious to Nation readers, but none of his liabilities or gross errors or giant fibs were mentioned by Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein when announced on Tuesday that Summers is now the leading candidate for the Fed appointment. That news quickly swept the web as though it were a done deal. Let’s hope that is wrong. Klein is a conscientious policy wonk and often insightful about economic policy but on political questions he can sound like an establishment camp follower.
Klein took the feed from his White House sources and obediently recited the supposed virtues they see in Summers compared point by point with the rival contender, Fed vice chair Janet Yellen. “Rightly or wrongly,” Klein wrote, “there’s a sense that Summers has the market’s trust in a way Yellen doesn’t.” That put-down is a nasty bit of knife work sure to please Klein’s sources, but is truly slanderous if you know Yellen’s biography and intellectual stature. If the White House blather and media ignorance prevail, it will be sad for the country and shameful for Obama.
Does the Clinton-Rubin establishment believe, like Larry Summers, that boys really are smarter than girls? Reporters like Klein should ask, because that’s the way it looks. Women at large should mobilize an aggressive pushback—no more second chances for Larry Summers. The Obama administration should impose a glass ceiling on the old boys who got it wrong.
For more reasons why Larry Summers should not be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, read William Greider’s “Stop Larry Summers Before He Messes Up Again.”
Larry Summers watches as President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden speak in the East Room of the White House on January 30, 2009. (REUTERS/Jason Reed)
Washington insiders are spreading an alarming news alert. Barack Obama, I am told, is on the brink of making a terrible mistake by appointing Lawrence Summers as the new chairman of the Federal Reserve. That sounds improbable, since Summers is a toxic retread from the old boys’ network and a nettlesome egotist who offended just about everyone during his previous tours in government. More to the point, Summers was a central player in the grave governing errors that led to the financial collapse and a ruined economy.
Surely not, I thought, when I heard the gossip. But my source heard it from the White House. Obama’s senior economic advisers—still dominated by Clintonistas and aging acolytes of Robert Rubin—are pushing the president to choose Summers as the successor to Ben Bernanke, whose term ends in January. And they are urging Obama to make the announcement right now, before the opposition can get organized.
To thwart this ploy, Democratic senators and rank-and-file constituents need to sound the alarm promptly and promise, loud and clear, to vote against Summers if Obama once again accepts the choice of the Clinton-Rubin crowd. The former Harvard president was himself a Wall Street player between his government positions. He was a soft-on-banks adviser to Obama during the president’s first term. Choosing Summers now would be another great gift to the mega-banks. But it would be a very tough vote for Democrats who claim the mantle of reform.
There are many reasons to oppose Summers as Fed chair, but the strongest objection is that Obama would be rewarding the same guys who got things disastrously wrong for the country—the Clinton-Rubin policy makers who danced to Wall Street’s tune of financial deregulation and collaborated with the Greenspan Fed and Wall Street to gut prudential regulation like the Glass-Steagall Act. Those actions set the stage for the crisis that devastated middle-class home owners and working people generally.
Summers was an over-confident cheerleader posing as superior intellect. People called him “the smartest man in the room,” and Summers definitely believed it. As Treasury secretary during Bill Clinton’s second term, Summers personally did the knife work that cut up Brooksley Born, the brave regulator earnestly trying to impose meaningful limits on the explosive derivatives market. He still owes Born—and the country—an apology.
Summers got bounced as president of Harvard for his derogatory remarks about women as scientists. He dissed black professors as inadequate scholars. Personality defects aside, the Democratic party has a huge stake in this decision—whether the money-friendly “New Democrats” who have controlled the party since Bill Clinton will continue to dominate the party’s agenda and smother any attempts to embrace true reform.
When Summers came back to Washington in 2009 as Obama’s chief economic adviser, he pushed aside rival views and once again underestimated the nature of the crisis or how to deal with it. When other Democrats called for much stronger stimulus measures, Summers was a voice for doing less, and he accepted disappointing results as the best that government could do. Obama, alas, adhered to that advice.
Summers has been trying to rewrite his reputation as he campaigns openly this year for the Federal Reserve appointment. The Washington Post offered him a prime pulpit for a series of op-ed columns in which he makes himself sound like a bleeding-heart liberal. Don’t be misled. If opponents dig into his old speeches and over-confident pronouncements, they will find rich material to make the case for rejecting him. The question is not about left or right policy decisions. The question is incompetence.
The best reason to turn Summers out to pasture is that Obama has a far better choice available—a more experienced central banker and moderately liberal economist named Janet Yellen. She is vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington and has been a close ally of Bernanke and a strong voice for focusing on jobs and other threatening weaknesses in the broad economy. She served for some years as president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank and before that a term as governor before Obama appointed her as vice chair.
It doesn’t hurt that Yellen would be the first woman ever to serve as Federal Reserve chair. It’s about time. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the central bank. The stolid masculinity of this cloistered institution has failed the country spectacularly and needs to be pried open for public policy debates. The most chilling failure was that its conservative leaders—Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke—did not see the crisis that was coming (evidently neither did Yellen).
That institution’s reputation has been gravely diminished by the bank bailouts and other adverse events. The public was shocked and remains deeply skeptical. People don’t trust the Federal Reserve, and for good reason. What people could see with their own eyes was that the Fed expended trillions to rescue the mega-banks from the troubled waters while people were left to drown. The illegitimate banker-government relationship has exposed an urgent need for fundamental reforms.
Obama might ask himself which candidate would be most likely to restore public trust in the Fed and see the need for substantial reforms. The smart guy from the old boys’ club or an experienced woman who is ready to make history?
President Barack Obama points to Senator Chris Dodd and Representative Barney Frank after signing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in a ceremony in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, July 21, 2010.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
When Barack Obama boasted that his administration had put an end to “too big to fail” banks, it was probably the biggest fib of his presidency. The legislation known as Dodd-Frank did no such thing but its passage effectively closed the subject.
Many Democrats in Congress knew better but did not wish to complicate politics for their president while he campaigned for re-election. The law was riddled with rubbery claims and loose language but wishful thinking assumed the federal regulators would give it backbone. That frail hope vanished rapidly. Squads of bank lobbyists swamped enforcement agencies. Republicans worked relentlessly to protect the bankers from the public’s demand for reform. Obama kept repeating his facile claim of victory when he surely knew it wasn’t true.
This was a depressing spectacle of failed politics. But it is not the end of the story. A new reform movement is struggling to find shape and voice in Congress. It will not wait for Barack Obama to take the lead, since his solicitude for big-name Wall Street banking continues undiminished. And some old bulls in Democratic caucuses remember they had voted for the Clinton-era deregulation that led to the financial instability and collapse. Wall Street money remains mother’s milk for both political parties.
Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding too wishful myself, I see the outlines of a vigorous new reform caucus developing. Do not expect instant success but new faces have nothing to hide or explain away. The country is still paying dearly for what the bankers did to the economy. Even worse, the nation is still at risk of another breakdown because the basic problem of recklessness has not been fixed.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, the fresh face from Massachusetts, has joined Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and independent Senator Angus King of Maine as co-sponsors of a bill to restore the Glass-Steagall Act—the New Deal reform that separated investment banking from commercial banks. The Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan led the charge on gutting Glass-Steagall. Bill Clinton collaborated with right-wing Republicans in repealing the law.
“Banking should be boring,” Senator Warren said. “Savings accounts, checking accounts—the things that you and I rely on everyday—should be safe from the sort of high-risk activities that broke our economy…. The FDIC insures our traditional banks to keep your money safe…. But the government should not be insuring hedge funds, swaps dealing and other risky investment banking.” The McCain-Warren-Cantwell-King legislation proposes a five-year transition period for banks to downsize and undo their maze of risky connections to shadow banking. These adjustments, Warren explained, move the system “toward ending ‘too big to fail’ once and for all, and minimizing the risk of future bailouts.”
Senator Sherrod Brown, Ohio Democrat, has teamed with Senator David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, to push a remedy that could act faster—imposing higher capital requirements for risk-exposed mega-banks. These parallel measures would naturally provoke intense attacks by the banks, but the political assumptions may be shifting for reform-minded advocates.
Why are the big banks still getting away with highway robbery while the country remains mired in a stagnant economy? Democrats could run on that issue in 2014 and aim the same question at the two-faced Republican party. The GOP stands with the bankers and against consumers and gets away with it. For that matter, so do a lot of Democrats. This is good fight to have. It it will clarify the true intentions of both parties.
Elizabeth Warren is tackling Wall Street, and she’s starting with student debt.
Abortion-rights activists march towards the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, January 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Republicans have once again rolled their old war horse out of the barn for another run at the Constitution. This time the anti-abortion crowd has decided the viability of a fetus outside the womb should be twenty weeks, defying scientific evidence and the Supreme Court‘s settled judgment in repeated cases. Never mind, once again House Republicans oblige by passing the measure, this time accompanied by sly little sex jokes about masturbating male fetuses.
And then what? And then nothing. Talk about masturbation—this is an empty ritual the old bulls of the GOP have been performing for forty years, ever since Roe v. Wade. Sometimes they have even gotten a law enacted. But the story ends the same way—rejection by the Supreme Court, conservative though it is. This time there won’t be any new law, since Senate Democrats won’t allow it. Yet the juggernaut cranks up for another run.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of an anti-abortion political action group, called the House vote “historic.” Activists boast that they are winning big at the state level. Fourteen states so far this year have enacted a storm of newly restrictive laws at the state level, suggesting that the anti-abortion cause is cresting anew.
Actually, no. If you look at those fourteen states—from Alabama to Utah—they are pretty much the same states that have been doing this for decades, mostly under-populated and rural. I did a little “back of the envelope” calculation and determined that the fourteen states represent 15 percent of the US population, 47 million out of 308 million.
Many of the states are also from the Deep South. That region has lots of experience defying Supreme Court decisions—the experience of losing in the long run.
Why does Aiyana Jones’s death matter? Read Mychal Denzel Smith’s argument here.
Relatives show pictures of garment workers who are missing, during a protest to demand punishment for those responsible for the collapse of the Rana Plaza building, in Savar, outside Dhaka April 29, 2013. Reuters/Andrew Biraj
They are still digging up victims from the collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh—381 corpses and counting—while international media report the sickening details of crushed skulls and severed limbs and describe with sympathy the wildly distraught mourners searching the rubble for dead daughters. The Daka authorities arrested the greedy factory owner to save him from the mob. Sohel Rama, owner of the collapsed factory, blamed the pressures of global competition. He had no choice, he explained. Keep the sewing machines humming or else lose the contract.
If a country can’t keep wages and costs down, its production will be moved to the next poor nation willing to sacrifice its citizens in the name of economic advancement. This is what organized labor calls the “race to the bottom,” and unions have campaigned futilely for decades to stop it. Only there is no bottom, really, in the global food chain because the world has a vast backlog of very poor nations desperate for jobs and anxious to please the multinational companies that buy the cheap goods and rebrand them as J.C. Penney or Benetton or best-buy stuff at Walmart.
This is a very old story by now—these recurring tragedies of massive death for commerce. Bangladesh is getting good coverage because its carnage is likely setting new records. The grisly details will continue elsewhere for sure. Stories of thirty or fifty or 150 dead in industrial fires and other calamities are so routine, they begin to sound familiar and tiresome. We will see many more so long as fledgling enterprises in Asia and elsewhere are unwilling (or unable) to spend the modest sums required for routine safety measures.
For shame, Bangladesh. How can you people be so indifferent to human life? In America, we think life is precious. Don’t we? At least, we think American life is precious. Those strange foreigners should learn to look out for their own the way we supposedly do.
Enough of our sickening hypocrisy. Let’s drop the tear-jerk stories in American newspapers. Let us admit the cold truth about ourselves. The guilt for these distant deaths belongs to us—the self-righteous American government and morally obtuse American citizens. Not only because our people buy the stuff these young girls make in dangerous places where many of them will perish. But because the US government in Washington has the power to stop this inhumanity.
The president and Congress will not stop it, of course. That would require an admission of responsibility for what goes on in producing nations that feed our consumer culture. More importantly, it would violate our precious idea of freedom—wondrously expressed by the free market that insures prosperity and delivers the goods with good prices.
The federal government could stop these industrial scandals rather quickly by legislating rules of trade that prohibit any imported goods that are produced in barbarous conditions. This is not rocket science, as policy-makers like to say, nor without ample precedent. The so-called “free trade” system is actually a dense weave of import-export regulations that authorize government to inspect and reject goods at the border—drugs and food, for instance—if they do not comply with our standards for health and safety. A US trade restriction would require US importing companies to certify that the goods were produced in safe, sound factories. Nothing fancy, but basic terms that any modern society would insist upon for its own people. If a factory is falsely certified, the goods would be blocked from entry and a stiff penalty would fall upon the Walmarts of American commerce, not the bucket-shop operators in very poor countries.
This would reverse the incentives and begin to build a floor of decency under what the trading system allows. President Obama and US multinationals are preparing a new free-trade agreement with Asian nations, but you can be sure there is nothing in it to protect the defenseless workers in Bangladesh and other poor countries. Indeed, US trade agreements, starting with NAFTA, have concentrated on insuring the rights of capital, not labor. We do not know what Obama will propose because his negotiations are being conducted in private consultation with the multinational companies—no labor representatives have yet been allowed to see draft agreements.
The usual cheerleaders for globalization will instantly denounce this idea as a dangerous intrusion—protectionism!—that threatens free-flowing commerce. “Two cheers for sweatshops,” as The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn once declared. Yes, they would acknowledge, trade does involve some unfortunate negative qualities, but as poor nations prosper they will learn, in time, to insist on higher standards. This is the path to modern life, so best not interfere.
Actually, unregulated globalization—shorn of human sympathy and oblivious to persistent cruelties—is the road backwards. The creative tumult of our era, with its fantastic inventions and globalizing production, has reverted to ancient injustices—forms of exploitation that originated three centuries ago with the English industrial revolution. When new machines like textile looms displaced human labor, the seasoned workers were dismissed, their skills no longer valued. They were replaced in the factory by children and women—cheaper laborers without power or influence who toiled in “the dark satanic mills” first described by the English poet William Blake.
In our time, industrial capitalism has profitably employed the same exploitative routine, but with an essential difference. Thanks to global supply chains, contemporary sweatshops with dismal wages and sordid working conditions are located on the other side of the world. The people are exploited in various ways, but their cruel conditions cannot easily be seen by the American consumers who benefit from afar.
Thus, it is very difficult for exploited workers to organize meaningful protests and build the popular support needed for a reform movement. Even to attempt protests threatens workers with retaliation by the multinational companies. They can readily pack up and leave, move the factories to the next low-wage country where people and governments are desperate for jobs and income, however pitiful.
This cycle of exploitation is destined to continue until the world runs out of poor countries to exploit. Or until citizens in rich countries like the United States get over the ignorant indifference and face up to their guilty complicity with evil practices done in their name.
The interactive La Ruta dramatizes an experience that many immigrants know too well—and senators could learn from. Read Aura Bogado’s review.
President Obama discusses the federal budget at the White House. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
At the start of his second term, events pushed President Obama to choose between the living and the dead. He chose dead millionaires over elderly people living on Social Security. The wealthy were given a most generous reduction in the estate taxes to be collected when they die. Social Security beneficiaries were told to live with smaller benefit checks. Instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, Obama went the other way.
I asked Robert McIntyre, the celebrated reformer at Citizens for Tax Justice, what he makes of this odd presidential twist. “The Obama administration has mixed feelings about old people,” McIntyre dryly observed. “Old people on Social Security deserve smaller benefits. Old people who own estates worth tens of millions deserve smaller tax bills for their children.”
How could this have happened with a Democratic president in the White House? In early January, under pressure to make a “fiscal cliff” deal with Republicans, the president signed a new estate tax law that delivered a gorgeous windfall for those with accumulated wealth—or, rather, for their children or others who inherit the family fortunes. All rich people are now entitled to an estate-tax exemption of $5 million. That is seven times larger than the exemption that existed in the last years of the Clinton administration ($670,000) and more than double George W. Bush’s ($2 million).
Furthermore, because this new estate-tax exemption is indexed to protect against inflation, the exemption will keep growing bigger year after year. For 2012, the exemption rose by $120,000 and another $130,000 for 2013. That’s an annual inflation-driven increase of about 2.5 percent, though Social Security recipients received an increase of only 1.7 percent at the same time.
The new cost-of-living index Obama has proposed for Social Security would work in the opposite direction. It is designed to reduce Social Security benefits in future years, less than what people would get from the present calculation. The White House describes its so-called “chained CPI” as a technical fix that is good government policy.
Yet, taken together, these changes are a revenue loser for the government. The generous reductions in the estate tax will cost around $400 billion in lost revenue by not reverting to terms before the Bush II presidency worked to undermine it. The “chained CPI” fix for Social Security and other programs, including the estate tax exemption, is expected to save only about half as much as the estate tax loses—and those savings come not from the rich, but the broad ranks of working people.
Meanwhile, fewer than 4,000 very rich people will be left to pay the estate tax. This is not total victory for Republicans—they wanted to abolish the estate tax altogether—but it seems close enough. If you want to understand how the federal government drives the nation’s increasing inequality, look no further than the federal tax code.
The president is evidently having second thoughts of his own, at least about the rotten estate-tax deal he accepted. His new budget message promises to reopen that bad bargain and reinstate the estate tax exemption of $3.5 million that existed during his first year in office. Good luck with that one, Mr. President. It is hard to take his gesture seriously since the president proposes to restore the estate tax in 2018—two years after he has left office.
A more ambitious political leader would articulate and demand what he wants and what his party will insist on, regardless of whether it seems immediately achievable. Democrats are instead undercut by Obama’s sense of caution. Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, though supportive of Obama on the “chained CPI” issue, has wistfully cited an alternative remedy proposed by the late Robert Ball in his last years. Ball was a wise and trusted Social Security commissioner whom liberals relied on. He wrote that government could insure the permanent solvency of Social Security by raising the cap on the payroll tax deductions and by dedicating the revenue from the estate tax to keeping the Social Security trust fund in good health.
That connection between dead millionaires and retired working people could solve a lot of problems. It probably sounds too radical for Obama Democrats.
The president’s recurring problem is his softball style of governing. He begins negotiations by giving up his leverage—offering to retreat from the party’s crown jewels like Social Security or the strong estate tax Democrats traditionally defended. Then he asks Republicans to be reasonable and reciprocate. They respond by kicking him in the shins. Republicans play hardball, and with considerable success. Obama Democrats are playing badminton.
At his luxury library-museum complex, George W. Bush’s legacy lives on—without Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. Read John Nichols’s take.