Nation Topics - Economic Policy
News and Features
Sentient observers know that American state and local governments face a
historic crisis--that they are cutting vital services and raising taxes,
mainly on those already most stressed in diffic
Critics of America's plans to oust Saddam Hussein militarily have
mounted powerful arguments, but not one has articulated a coherent
nonmilitary strategy to bring about the demise of the monstr
One of the great disappointments of recent decades is that Democrats
have more or less swallowed whole the underlying economic theories of
their Republican rivals.
One bubble burst, then another and another. Enron, Global Crossing,
WorldCom. The rectitude of auditors--pop. Faith in corporate CEOs and
stock market analysts--pop, pop. The self-righteous prestige of
Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase--pop and pop again. The largest bubble
is the stock market's, and it may not yet be fully deflated. These
dizzying events are not an occasion for champagne music because the
bursting bubbles have cast millions of Americans into deep personal
losses, destroyed trillions of dollars in capital, especially retirement
savings, and littered the economic landscape with corporate wreckage.
Ex-drinker George W. Bush explained that a "binge" is always followed by
the inevitable "hangover." What he did not say is that the "binge" that
has just ended with so much pain for the country was the conservative
Economic liberalism prevailed from the New Deal forward but broke down
in the late 1960s when it was unable to resolve doctrinal failures
including an inability to confront persistent inflation. Now market
orthodoxy is coming apart as a result of its own distinctive failures.
It can neither explain the economic disorders before us nor remedy them
because, in fact, its doctrine of reckless laissez-faire produced them.
The bursting bubbles are not accidents or the work of a few
larceny-prone executives. They are the consequence of everything the
conservative ascendancy sought to achieve--the savagery and injustice of
unregulated markets, the blind willfulness of unaccountable
We will be a long time getting over the conservative "hangover." It may
even take some years before politicians and policy thinkers grasp that
the old order is fallen. But this season marks a dramatic starting point
for thinking anew. Left-liberal progressives have been pinned down in
rearguard defensive actions for nearly thirty years, but now they have
to learn how to play offense again. Though still marginalized and
ignored, progressives will determine how fast the governing ethos can be
changed, because the pace will be set largely by the strength of their
ideas, their strategic shrewdness and, above all, the depth of their
convictions. That may sound fanciful to perennial pessimists, but if you
look back at the rise of the conservative orthodoxy, it was not driven
by mainstream conservatives or the Republican Party but by those
dedicated right-wingers who knew what they believed and believed, most
improbably, that their ideas would prevail.
The new agenda falls roughly into three parts, and the first might be
described as "restoring the New Deal." That is, the first round of
necessary reforms, like the Sarbanes bill already enacted, must
basically restore principles and economic assurances that Americans used
to enjoy--the protections inherited from the liberal era that were
destroyed or severely damaged by right-wing deregulation and corporate
corruption of government. Pension funds, for instance, lost horrendously
in the stock market collapse and face a potentially explosive crisis
because corporate managers gamed the pension savings to inflate company
profits. Employees of all kinds deserve a supervisory voice in managing
this wealth, but Congress should also ask why corporations are allowed
such privileged control over other people's money. Broader reform will
confront the disgraceful fact that only half the work force has any
pension at all beyond Social Security and set out to create tax
incentives and penalties to change this.
Another major reconstruction is needed in antitrust law, to restore and
modernize the legal doctrine systematically gutted by the Reagan era
(and only marginally repaired under Clinton). The financial debacle
includes scores of companies concocted by endless mergers that pumped up
the stock price but added no real economic value. Others sought to build
the dominance of oligopoly and have succeeded across many sectors.
Spectacular failures include AOL Time Warner and the airline industry.
Skepticism of unlimited bigness needs to be renewed and should start
with the banking industry--reining in those conflicted conglomerates,
like Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, created with repeal of the New
Deal's wise separation of commercial and investment banking.
New Dealers got a lot of things right, but the second dimension of new
progressive thinking requires a recognition that returning to the New
Deal framework is essentially a retrograde option (and not only because
the country is a different place now). Liberals ought to ask why so many
New Deal reforms proved to be quite perishable or why some of its
greatest triumphs, like the law establishing the rights of working
people to organize, have been perverted into obstacles for the very
people supposedly protected. In short, this new era requires
self-scrutiny and the willingness to ask big, radical, seemingly
impossible questions about how to confront enduring social discontents
and economic injustice.
Who really owns the corporation (clearly it's not the shareholders), and
how might corporations be reorganized to reduce the social injuries? Is
the government itself implicated in fostering, through subsidy and
tax-code favoritism, the very corporate antisocial behavior its
regulations are supposed to prevent? Congress, aroused by scandal, is
considering penalizing those companies that moved to Caribbean tax
havens yet still enjoy US privileges and protection. That's a good
starting point for rethinking the nature of government's corporatized
indulgences (old habits first formed in the New Deal) and perhaps
turning them into leverage for public objectives. To explore this new
terrain, we need lots of earnest inquiry, noisy debate and re-education
by a reinvigorated labor movement, environmental and social reformers
and ordinary citizens who yearn for serious politics, significant
A third dimension for new thinking is the economic order itself. During
the past two decades, a profound inversion has occurred in the governing
values of US economic life and, in turn, captured politics and elite
discourse--the triumph of finance over the real economy. In the natural
order of capitalism, the financial system is supposed to serve the
economy of production--goods and services, jobs and incomes--but the
narrow values of Wall Street have become the master. The Federal Reserve
and other governing institutions are implicated, but so are the media
and other institutions of society.
The political system is, of course, not ready to consider any of these
or other big matters. One of the first chores is to bang on the
Democratic Party, which, despite some advances, has expressed its fealty
to corporate money by clearing the fast-track trade bill and bankers'
bankruptcy bill for passage. This amounts to selling out principle and
loyal constituencies before the election, instead of afterward. Of
course the politicians are hostile--what else is new?--but now it's the
left that can say, They just don't get it.
Reversing the nation's deformed priorities will be a hard struggle but
has renewed promise now that the stock market bubble and other New
Economy delusions have been demolished. People do not live and work in
order to buy stocks. People exist in complex webs of relationships with
family, work, community and many other rewarding adventures and
obligations. The larger purpose of the economic order, including Wall
Street, is to support the material conditions for human existence, not
to undermine and destabilize them. If that observation sounds quaint,
it's what most Americans, regardless of ideology, happen to believe. If
our progressive objectives are deeply aligned with what people truly
seek and need in their lives, the ideas will prevail.
Thou hast taken usury and increase, and thou hast greedily gained of thy neighbor by extortion, and hast forgotten me, saith the Lord God.
When did the great executive stock option hog wallow really start? You
can go back to the deregulatory push under Carter in the late 1970s,
then move into the Reagan '80s, when corporate purchases of shares
really took off with the leveraged buyouts and mergermania, assisted by
tax laws that favored capital gains over stockholder dividends and
allowed corporations to write off interest payments entirely.
Between 1983 and 1990, 72.5 percent of net US equity purchases were
bought by nonfinancial corporations. At the end of this spree the
debt-laden corporations withdrew to their tents for three years of
necessary restraint and repose, until in 1994 they roared into action
once more, plunging themselves into debt to finance their share
purchases. This was the start of the options game.
Between 1994 and 1998 nonfinancial companies began to load themselves up
with yet more debt. The annual value of the repurchases quadrupled,
testimony to the most hectic sustained orgy of self-aggrandizement by an
executive class in the history of capitalism.
For these and ensuing reflections and specific figures, I'm mostly
indebted to Robert Brenner's prescient The Boom and the Bubble,
published this spring with impeccable timing by Verso; also Robin
Blackburn's long-awaited book (now being released by Verso) on the past
and future of pensions, Banking on Death.
Why did these chief executive officers, chief financial officers and
boards of directors choose to burden their companies with debt? Since
stock prices were going up, companies needing money could have raised
funds by issuing shares rather than borrowing money to buy shares back.
Top corporate officers stood to make vast killings on their options, and
by the unstinting efforts of legislators such as Senator Joe Lieberman,
they were spared the inconvenience of having to report to stockholders
the cost of these same options. Enlightened legislators had also been
thoughtful enough to rewrite the tax laws in such a manner that the cost
of issuing stock options could be deducted from company income.
It's fun these days to read all the jubilant punditeers who favor the
Democrats now lashing Bush and Cheney for the way they made their
fortunes while repining the glories of the Clinton boom, when the dollar
was mighty and the middle classes gazed into their 401(k) nest eggs with
the devotion of Volpone eyeing his trove. "Good morning to the day; and,
next, my gold:/Open the shrine, that I may see my saint."
Bush and Cheney deserve the punishment. But when it comes to political
parties, the seaminess is seamless. The Clinton boom was lofted in large
part by the helium of bubble accountancy.
By the end of 1999 average annual pay of CEOs at 362 of America's
largest corporations had swollen to $12.4 million, six times more than
what it was in 1990. The top option payout was to Charles Wang, boss of
Computer Associates International, who got $650 million in restricted
shares, towering far above Ken Lay's scrawny salary of $5.4 million and
shares worth $49 million. As the 1990s blew themselves out, the
corporate culture, applauded on a weekly basis by such bullfrogs of the
bubble as Thomas Friedman, saw average CEO pay at those same 362
corporations rise to a level 475 times larger than that of the average
The executive suites of America's largest companies became a vast hog
wallow. CEOs and finance officers would borrow millions from some
complicit bank, using the money to drive up company stock prices,
thereby inflating the value of their options. Brenner offers us the
memorable figure of $1.22 trillion as the total of borrowing by
nonfinancial corporations between 1994 and 1999, inclusive. Of that sum,
corporations used just 15.3 percent for capital expenditures. They used
57 percent of it, or $697.4 billion, to buy back stock and thus enrich
themselves. Surely the wildest smash and grab in the annals of corporate
When the bubble burst, the parachutes opened, golden in a darkening sky.
Blackburn cites the packages of two departing Lucent executives, Richard
McGinn and Deborah Hopkins, a CFO. Whereas the laying off of 10,500
employees was dealt with in less than a page of Lucent's quarterly
report in August 2001, it took a fifteen-page attachment to outline the
treasures allotted to McGinn (just under $13 million, after running
Lucent for barely three years) and to Hopkins (at Lucent for less than a
year, departing with almost $5 million).
Makes your blood boil, doesn't it? Isn't it time we had a "New Covenant
for economic change that empowers people"? Aye to that! "Never again
should Washington reward those who speculate in paper, instead of those
who put people first." Hurrah! Whistle the tune and memorize the words
(Bill Clinton's in 1992).
There are villains in this story, an entire piranha-elite. And there are
victims, the people whose pension funds were pumped dry to flood the hog
wallow with loot. Here in the United States privatization of Social
Security has been staved off only because Clinton couldn't keep his hand
from his zipper, and now again because Bush's credentials as a voucher
for the ethics of private enterprise have taken a fierce beating.
But the wolves will be back, and popgun populism (a brawnier SEC, etc.,
etc.) won't hold them off. The Democrats will no more defend the people
from the predations of capital than they will protect the Bill of Rights
(in the most recent snoop bill pushed through the House, only three
voted against a measure that allows life sentences for "malicious
hacking": Dennis Kucinich and two Republicans, Jeff Miller of Florida
and the great Texas libertarian, Ron Paul). It was the Senate Democrats
in early July who rallied in defense of accounting "principles" that
permitted the present deceptive treatment of stock options. Not just Joe
Lieberman, the whore of Connecticut, but Tom Daschle of the Northern
Popgun populism is not enough. Socialize accumulation! Details soon.
Events in Washington are potentially momentous, but hold the applause.
In late May, the Dow was at 10,300, but by mid-July it had dropped
almost 2,000 points. The Nasdaq and S&P indexes are at zero gain for
the past five years, as if the bubble never occurred. This slow-motion
crash induced even the most obedient right-wing lapdogs to scurry aboard
the Sarbanes reform bill, and the Senate passed it, 97-0. The President
made two malaprop-laced pep talks to recast himself as Mr. Reformer Guy
(and knocked another 500 points off the Dow). But W. is a lagging
political indicator these days. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan
Greenspan has lost his touch. For years he celebrated the new economy
and refused to take any action that might have worked to curb its
excesses; a bit late he tells us "irrational exuberance" was actually
"infectious greed." Now, with fear overtaking that greed in the markets
and thus in Washington, the ingredients are present for an ideological
sea change in American politics. But not yet.
Democrats, newly awakened to the potency of Enron-like financial
scandals, are throwing smart punches at the business-friendly White
House, but they are six months late to the cause (and still sound less
convinced than Republican maverick John McCain). The passage of Senator
Sarbanes's legislation is meaningful, but Democratic leaders choked on
the hard part--reforming stock options and giving workers a voice in
managing their own pension savings. Why mess up fundraising with those
high-tech companies dumping "New Dem" millions on the party of working
people? Majority leader Tom Daschle, who lamely promised a vote
(someday) on the stock-option issue, will be revealed as another limp
corporate shmoozer if he fails to deliver. So far, the Coca-Cola
directors have more courage than he. Likewise, Senator Joseph Lieberman
can doubtless raise millions from Silicon Valley for his presidential
ambitions by defending the corporate hogs but, if so, he should rethink
which party will have him.
The Republicans are in a deeper hole, of course. If Bush wants to bring
his much-touted "moral clarity" to the reform cause, he'll have to drop
the weepy speeches and dump Harvey Pitt as SEC chairman and Tom White,
the Enronized Army Secretary. Then Bush should take his own medicine and
come clean, open the secret SEC records of his insider cashout as a
director of Harken, and do the same for the SEC investigation of Vice
President Cheney's stewardship as CEO of Halliburton. Republican zealots
and their attack-dog newspaper, the Wall Street Journal,
exhausted the nation with their pursuit of the Clintons on Whitewater.
Stonewalling by the Bush White House promises to make these far more
serious financial matters a permanent theme of the Bush presidency.
The reforms currently in motion are a good start, but no more, as
William Greider notes on page 11. We know what to expect from the
Republicans--stubborn maneuvering and guile designed to stall real
change until (they hope) the stock market turns around and public anger
subsides. But Democrats have a historic opening far greater than this
fall's elections--the opportunity to revive their role as trustworthy
defenders of the folks who have always been the bone and sinew of the
party, the people who do not get stock options and who deserve a much
larger voice in Washington. If Democrats take a pass on the facts before
them, they deserve our scorn. If they find the courage to break out of
the corporate-money straitjacket and once again speak for the public,
this could be the beginning of something big.