Friday, July 2, 2010


Apart from being the type of financial reform that only the comics at Monty Python could appreciate, the new financial reform bill does almost nothing with regards to change the structural conditions that led to the 2008 market collapse. John R. Talbott, author of The Coming Crash in the Housing Market (2003) has a detailed master list of what makes the financial reform bill largely toothless.

But the real sin that I see in the financial reform legislation is not what it leaves out, but in it's premise. Fundamentally it's guided by a corrupted and failed ideology where the God's of Wall Street can say one thing ("When we're in trouble you need to bail us out") and then say another to Main Street ("When you're in trouble you can eat crack").

While our market ideology is supposed to be guided by the principle that if you work hard you will get ahead - which is the moral justification of capitalism - it's been turned on its head by Wall Street's new guiding lights of favorable legislation and unnecessary tax cuts. While the first corrupts the ideology, the latter deprives the state of the funds it needs to function.

Worse, after experiencing a catastrophic market collapse caused by 30 years of following Wall Street's "No tax, No Government" approach to public policy our political mandarins continue to believe that we need to appease the God's of Wall Street, as if they just did our nation a favor. What they don't understand is that the Wall Street's market players today are little more than rats on a sinking ship.

The failure to extend unemployment benefits, and the rather weak financial reform bill in front of Congress now, makes it clear that Congress is prepared to appease the Wall Street Gods. What they conveniently ignore is that unemployment benefits are needed because of what Wall Street did, and should not be determined by the sense that Wall Street will be offended by another $33 billion in debt (especially since we could pay for the benefits by retroactively taxing Wall Street's undeserved bonuses).

What our national leadership doesn't seem to understand is that as long as Wall Street is able to live by one set of rules, while Main Street is supposed to live by another, their concern over a few billion dollars in additional debt, and focusing on a set of weak "structural reforms" is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Want some evidence? Check out these two charts.

When compared to other economic downturns in the post-war era job losses have never been as steep as they are now.

Worse, the period of unemployment has almost doubled during this recession compared to other periods. It's one thing to be unemployed, but to be unemployed with no prospects on the horizon can be downright depressing.

The problem is that while Wall Street and their patrons have secured favorable legislation that's allowed them to change the rules of the game in their favor ("Bailouts & taxcuts for us, austerity & no job security for you ..."). This has created a situation where, as Les Lepold points out, there's "too much wealth in the hands of the few and too much power and wealth controlled by Wall Street".

While the new financial reform bill does little to limit this power and wealth, our too-big-to-fail banks, as Lepold points out, "are still with us--and cockier than ever." He adds:

Very few commentators or policy officials have the nerve to call for restoring taxes on the super-rich to the levels they paid from the 1930s through the 1970s. (Back then, their tax rate was up to 91%. Now they pay as little as 15% because they can claim their booty as "capital gains.") The 10 leading hedge fund managers each "earn" an average of $900,000 an hour (not a typo). Public officials and pundits should be calling such wildly excessive incomes a disgrace to democracy--especially given that without taxpayer bailouts the financial elites would have earned nothing at all. Instead we are told to admire the robbery as if it were a sign of entrepreneurial genius.

And, sure enough, we continue to admire the robbery. Think about it. How else could a group of people who caused our economic meltdown turn the tables and then be rewarded financially (bonuses & bailouts), legally (waivers), and with a politically opportunistic movement (Tea Party anyone?) that does their bidding? That Wall Street continues to have so much political influence after making a mess of things should be a national embarrassment.

At the end of the day, Wall Street and their political muscle in Congress continue to perpetuate the lie that we live in a free market economy. We don't (read The Myth of the Market). The reality is that Wall Street has become a voracious gambling den governed by favorable legislation and an irresponsible and clueless plutocracy.

Still, in the eyes of Congress, Wall Street continues to know best. Let's be blunt. As long as we continue to believe all we need to do is tinker on the margins of Wall Street's world, reform or no reform, we're in deep trouble.

- Mark

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