AUDIO: Robert Scheer Speaks With Nomi Prins About the Connection Between Washington and Wall Street
In this week’s “Scheer Intelligence”—the Truthdig editor in chief’s podcast on KCRW—author, journalist and former investment banker Nomi Prins explains the culture of Wall Street and its influence on government.
Read the transcript below.
— Adapted from KCRW by Alexander Reed Kelly.
RS: Hello. I’m Robert Scheer, and welcome to Scheer Intelligence, my podcast in collaboration with KCRW in which I talk to people I consider to be American originals. My guest today is Nomi Prins, definitely an American original. She started out working on Wall Street, worked for Goldman Sachs at one point, and then has emerged as one of the major critics of the big banks and what they did to bring about the Great Recession. She is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Public Policy Think Tank DEMOS; she is also the author of several books, including “It Takes a Pillage” and, most recently, “All the President’s Bankers.” And, full disclosure, she served on Senator Bernie Sanders’ Federal Reserve Advisory Council. I’m going to ask you what that’s all about. But I want to get an objective appraisal of this democratic election, because we’re being frightened with some image of the greater evil of the Republican Party, and there’s a lot of evil there to talk about. But once again, we’re being urged to think uncritically about the Democrats. And I want—you know, your, “It Takes a Pillage” is, after all, a play on Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village”; it’s a terrific book, I use it in teaching in my job at USC, and I’ve had you in my class, and I have great respect for your analysis. So why don’t we begin there? You were working at Goldman Sachs, and what has brought you to this place, and what is your evaluation of the choices we face?
NP: First of all, thanks a lot for having me, Bob. I did work in Goldman Sachs, and did leave to become a journalist and an author. And mostly that was because of what was my own moral obligation percolating within me to leave a very corrupt environment and seek the reasons for it, and also to share the analysis of what I could bring from my experience to the rest of the world. And at the time I left, it was in the wake of the Enron crisis, which at this point’s an old crisis; but a lot of the reasons for that crisis had to do with banks, had to do with how financing works in this country, and it has only gotten much worse and, as we know, more—because of the banking system and the political system that allows it to have become what it is—than ever before, with the financial crisis of 2008 and now what we see as what will be a prolonged global crisis.
RS: Let me jump in there, since you brought up Enron, which a lot of people forget about. But the collapse of Enron destroyed the life savings of all sorts of people, quite a few who worked for Enron and one of its subsidiaries, but also, and their investors who thought, my goodness, this big company—which was extremely well-connected in Washington, and not only to the Bush administration, but before that to the Clinton administration. And in fact, it should have come up recently in the news, because in the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and—it came up when Hillary accused Bernie Sanders of having voted for this terrible piece of financial deregulation, which is known as the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. And it’s true Sanders voted for it, as did everybody else except four members of the House, libertarian Ron Paul; but they did so because it was tucked into an omnibus bill, and it was written by Bill Clinton’s administration, it was signed by Bill Clinton; it was Bill Clinton’s legislation. The reason I’m bringing it up now is there is something called the “Enron loophole” in the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that Clinton signed as a lame duck president. And that loophole allowed Enron to go absolutely berserk in marketing energy derivatives and so forth. And so maybe you could begin there, because it’s all part of a whole; it’s manipulating the financial system to benefit Wall Street and screw Main Street, is of course, not only the slogan, but it’s an accurate description, and it’s been done by Republicans and Democrats. And so why don’t we begin with the Democrats and the financial deregulation that happened under Bill Clinton?
NP: Sure, I will unpack that. And also, the “Enron loophole” and how it was created was not just by Enron; it was by bankers at the time. In fact, during the period of the Clinton administration in the late nineties, when energy deregulation had just occurred in 1996—which effectively allowed energy companies to become bigger than they were and take on little energy companies and control more of the energy environment than they had before, of which Enron was a major recipient—the financial element of that, where they got to also trade in energy futures and derivatives and all sorts of complex financial securities that had nothing to do with extracting and distributing oil or creating an energy flow for a population; it had everything to do with trading and simply making money off of speculative transactions. Goldman Sachs, which is the company I worked for, had been a part of fighting for that “Enron loophole” during the Clinton administration years, as well as had Enron. So here you had a company that was run by Republicans, who had a big bank that was, at the time, run by a Republican, Hank Paulson; but you also had people on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, pushing for this idea of ensuring that derivatives that were associated with energy would not have to be transparent to anyone else who was examining the markets. So effectively they were deregulated; they were taken out of the purview and control of regulators. And what this meant was, not just Enron but its banking partners like Goldman Sachs, like Merrill Lynch at the time, which became later part of Bank of America during the last financial crisis, were able to basically be copartners in creating a very opaque trading environment around energy.
RS: Well, so opaque, as anyone who has seen the movie “Smartest Guys in the Room,” Alex Gibney’s movie on the Enron collapse—I mean, they were actually phony companies, and people went to jail over it, and so forth. But it’s interesting, you mention that Hank Paulson at that moment was the head of Goldman Sachs, and then he of course became Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush. But let’s not forget Bill Clinton picked as his Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who had been one of the top guys at Goldman Sachs, and certainly had been there during a lot of the mischief of that company. Now, you know, some people have written very persuasively about Goldman Sachs, and you know, yet I don’t think we really quite understand, what is it, the cynicism of these folks. That’s the only way I can explain it. And to take it full circle, here’s Hillary Clinton who now says she wants for everyone what she has for her grandchild. Well, that would mean every grandchild in this country would have to have a father who was funded in a hedge fund by Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs. It would have to mean, you know, all of us would have to have one of these top-choice jobs like he has, where he can lose lots of money and still make lots of money. That’s what they do. So maybe we should begin by giving us the ethos of Goldman Sachs and how bipartisan it is. It’s something people—you know, it’s all easy to blast the Koch brothers and the evil right-wing forces, but if you think about who really runs this country, it’s not the Koch brothers. Goldman Sachs is much closer to the center of power. And one thing people seem to have forgotten is that with the great meltdown—you know, and the ending of Glass-Steagall, ending of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great restrictions on greed done in response to the Great Depression—Goldman Sachs was allowed, when it got in trouble over these derivatives, to go from being an investment bank to a commercial bank and get public funding as a result. You know, so that, not only did that legislation benefit Citigroup and Bill Clinton gave the pen he, one of the pens he used to sign to Sandy Weill, the head of Citigroup, and Robert Rubin left the Clinton administration and worked for Citigroup for 10 years at 15 million bucks a year. So these people are—what are they? Are they totally without ethics? You have smelled them [laughter]; you have rubbed shoulders with them. You have been in their world, Nomi Prins. You’ve done an excellent job in your books, but now share that with people listening to this. Are these people, do they have any kind of a moral sensibility? NP: To these people, morality is basically, to them, money. It’s a greed for profit, it’s a greed for hierarchy, it’s a greed for power. And that’s all associated together; it’s not like just the idea of being a billionaire, which Lloyd Blankfein now almost is, or is, depending on where his stock is at the moment. It’s about being able to control what’s going on in the company, in Goldman Sachs; what’s going on in the government, and basically to buy and sell power. That’s really what it is. And it’s like that, it was like that—and that was one of the reasons I left in tremendous indignation, and I kind of turned my back on all the money of it. Because the money of it, the power of it, the struggling—now this is my trade, now that’s my trade, now let me get Hank Paulson to like me, now let me get a promotion—all of that sort of manifestation of what happens on a day-to-day basis, in terms of the internal struggles of people within an environment like Goldman Sachs, has absolutely nothing to do with the real world. It has nothing to do with how people, ultimately most people in the world are betrayed by what happens in these financial hierarchies, and particularly because of how they control and collude with—I shouldn’t even say it’s just the Goldman Sachs bankers that control the government. It’s a welcomed control; these people are friends. So when Bill Clinton becomes the president because Robert Rubin was one of his chief fundraisers in Washington in the early nineties, and then he turns around and thanks Robert Rubin by offering the most powerful banking position, really, in the country, which is the Treasury Secretary spot in his administration—that’s the kind of collusion and collaboration that’s at the core of our financial-political structure, and that is, as you said, that’s not just on the democratic side or just on the republican side; that is on the side of the power of those two components working together. So when Robert Rubin leaves Goldman Sachs to ultimately become a vice chairman at Citigroup—and for a little bit he was even chairman during the financial crisis, when Chuck Prince was kicked out, and there was a dislocation going on there in chaos—that’s an indication that this power circle has multiple decades and generations and associations that continue through the administrations of any one president. So by the time we got to Obama—well, by the time we stopped for George W. Bush and had Hank Paulson, who was the head of Goldman Sachs and then became the Treasury Secretary for George W. Bush during the financial crisis, whereby he helped architect help to the largest financial institutions, which are predominantly larger today than they were before the financial crisis, as well as helping his old firm Goldman Sachs—and then relinquish that position to Tim Geithner, who had been an Assistant Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton and who was now, then reemerged in Obama’s administration—you see this, like, multiple increase of individuals who continue to maintain their political and financial power through administration and through party. So when we look at Hillary Clinton running now, and trying to disassociate herself in some just abstract manner from Wall Street, it’s ridiculous if you consider the depth and the intricacies of the relationships between not just the Clintons but the parties, the families in power, with the individuals who are in power and the financial institutions, how they continue to stay linked throughout the years and throughout the different administrations. It’s illogical—and Bernie Sanders pointed this out, as do many people in America see this—to assume she is not connected to this infrastructure. Not simply because she is funded by it, not simply because her husband was funded by it, but because these are associations that exist for the purpose of maintaining that financial and political power structure.
RS: This is Robert Scheer and I’m talking to Nomi Prins, who is an American original in many ways. But one that’s quite interesting, because she defies what Lawrence Summers said in his misogynist manner as head of Harvard, that women can’t learn the intricacies of math and economics and so forth, and it’s been a male territory. And you have really called these people out, I think as effectively as anyone. Instead of drinking the Kool-Aid and going for all the money—because we’ve had women executives before; we’ve had women rise to the top of these big corporations and banks—you turned your back on them and you called them out. And you’ve done so very effectively, and they’ve attacked you for it. What got you to play, really, one of the leading roles in challenging these—what are they, these banksters?
NP: These are megalomaniac banksters. At my core, money wasn’t a motivating force relative to the sense of injustice that the entire system had. So I think—and I didn’t start out thinking about justice; what I started out, as I left the banking sector, was to—was to call, yes, to call out these people. Because no one else was. You know, and it wasn’t like I set out to be a whistleblower or anything else; I know there’s been different titles that have been put on me, and other people have done similar things. I mean, it was really a sense of, look, there is something going on here, and it isn’t clear to most people; and it was clear to me. And it was sort of like, well, if I don’t talk about this, you know, who is? And I mean, it’s weird, because it wasn’t like I felt that I was responsible to educate the world or anything; I don’t have that kind of sense. But I did feel that someone had to, and I was in the position where I could. And I did try to call out practices within the firm, but that was not the place to do it; I was talking to people who were basically set in their ways in their power structure, and all I could do was see what was going on. And I felt much better about myself and sort of my life, and the purpose or whatever, having not been in that environment, which was also quite toxic and coveted the wrong things, I think, the wrong values; I don’t think money is a value. Money is money. I think justice is a value, I think equality is a value, I think morality is a value, I think how we treat each other and how we teach each other is a value. And I would not have thought that, you know, 15 years or whatever it is that I, after I left the industry, I would necessarily still have to be talking about the same things, and they’ve gotten so much worse.
RS: That is what is so depressing. As you know, I’ve also written a book about this, and a lot of columns and so forth. And you would really think, after these people just case so close to destroying not only the American economy but the world economy—let’s just be clear, the consequence of what Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers and Bill Clinton and Phil Gramm on the republican side—plenty of Republicans; after all, this was basically a Republican cause that was going nowhere. Ronald Reagan had to tighten regulation because he had the savings and loan crisis in his administration; it remained for Bill Clinton to reach out, you know, on the urging of Wall Street, to the Republicans and say ‘Let’s see what we can do to triangulate this issue and bring the Democrats into the good graces of Wall Street.’ That was really the contribution of Bill Clinton. So they pull off what no one had been able to pull off on either side of the aisle since Franklin Delano Roosevelt; put good rules of the road in. And you talk about a culture—these people, you know, it’s nice to think, oh, the bad guys, they’re just cigar-chomping out somewhere in the Midwest and they’re, you know, robbing widows and they’re—no. These folks present as very enlightened, liberal people; Robert Rubin presents as a concerned, decent, liberal person. You know, Lawrence Summers, all these folks—and you just have to wonder, you know, how do they keep functioning this way? And they always survive. So doesn’t it drive you a little bit nuts that there’s no accountability?
NP: Absolutely. I mean, it drives me nuts every day. I think that’s why—well, and you, too, I’m sure; this is why we continue to do what we do. Because I have to believe that at the core, there are, you know, thinking people out there who continue to realize that something’s dramatically wrong with the system. And whether they think of that system as even knowing who Robert Rubin is, or just simply recognizing how difficult it is for them to get by—whatever their place in the system, they realize there is something wrong. And yeah, we can talk about this on public radio, and we should; these people don’t have the accountability gene that would behoove the positions of the power that they have in, I don’t know, a sort of normally just society. Which, our society is quite unequal by definition of these people going around getting all of the accolades and the positions and the media coverage and everything else. They also don’t have a sense of being in touch with actual people, and this is also a definite problem; Robert Rubin does not live in a world of real people, Hank Paulson does not live in a world of real people. This does not mean they don’t contribute charitably to good causes, but the idea of actually being an empathizer with what is happening in the world is not something that their level of behavior dictates they are doing at all. And this is part of the problem; when they do have the ear of, whether it’s candidates or presidents—and again, it’s a collective, collusive group of individuals who validate each other’s opinions as to what should be done and how it should be done, and they’re simply wrong in their thinking. Because to, for example, have an entire multitrillion-dollar business that is opaque and that is not subject to regulation in and of itself is illogical; it does not create systemic stability in any way. So even from a logical thinking perspective, they are outside of the realm of what they should be doing. And we see this in that, you know, many of the institutions that were involved in many trades that were not transparent have had to pay fines; the U.S. banking system in particular, the biggest six banks that paid over $130, $140 billion in fines and settlements since the financial crisis, on crimes from everything from rigging libor, rigging interest rates, to rigging foreign exchange rates, to things that they did evilly with subprime related loans and securities that were associated with those loans. And they still function. No one said ‘I’m sorry.’ No one has said ‘I’m going to leave because this is completely screwed up, and I will forgo the money.’ I mean, when I talk about this stuff, and I think I’m more enraged more recently because it’s become such—I see this global crisis happening again—I’m not talking from a position of being holier than thou. I did leave that money, and I did decide to talk about it from the other side; it can be done.
RS: We never really talk about the consequence. And it’s interesting, in the debate between, where Hillary blasted Bernie Sanders, was in South Carolina; it was in preparation—and you know, states where there’s a large number of black people and brown people and so forth. And you know, we had the Federal Reserve of St. Louis had a study that black and brown people who graduated from college lost, in the case of African-Americans, 70 percent of their net worth because of this Great Recession. Brown people closer to 60, or between 55 and 60 percent. That’s the people who graduated from college. If we look across the board, yes, there were a lot of whites got hurt; but it particularly wiped out the civil rights gains for minority communities, OK? And here was a thing where the Black Caucus was sponsoring it, and there was not one moment to address the cost of the Great Recession in terms of the growing inequality in America, the loss of real wages—I mean, the human misery. And in this country, let alone throughout the world. What happens when you are in these panels, you’re in these debates, you are being interviewed and you meet some of these folks? Do they have any angst about it? Do they have any feelings?
NP: I spoke at the Federal Reserve at an annual meeting of central bankers throughout the world that was held by the Federal Reserve, the IMF and the World Bank this summer. And the topic of the conference was basically about how to get Wall Street to work for Main Street, but in sort of Fed speak, it was how to create, you know, sort of more stability in the system. And before I spoke, there was a cardinal who spoke, and he basically looked at this room full of bankers and he said, you know, ‘Your first priority should be to help the poor.’ That’s what he said; you know, he gets—he was an old guy, you know; he gets up, he’s sort of hunched over, and he just, he very quietly looks at everyone and says, ‘You know what? Your first responsibility is to help the poor; it’s sort of like the doctor’s oath should be, you know, do no harm.’ And we spoke about that, but what I sensed was this disconnect between the people that actually ran the powerful elements of the Federal Reserve and had the media attention on them, which was ‘We are doing what we’re supposed to be doing; you know, we’ve decreased rates, so that’s supposed to create, you know, more credit into the economy; that’s supposed to help people create jobs and get jobs—’ and all of these sort of buzz-speak things that didn’t actually materialize, but they sort of stand back and say, ‘But we did the right thing.’ But they’re still questioning why banks aren’t doing it as well, and what I said to them was, why would they? Why would an institution that is not created to be sort of a moral dispensary of equal wealth, run by people who have even less of an obligation or sense to do that, in any way shape or form, without being required to do so, use the power of their structure to help benefit greater society or more people on the ground? And that’s the fundamental disconnect, is why, you know, this idea that why would these institutions do anything they’re not being made to do, if you’re just giving them cheap money on a platter? And so going back to how does that affect real people on the ground—well, if you look at an economy as sort of what they call in game theory a zero sum game, meaning that’s where the one percent versus 99 percent sort of terminology can be applied—if you look at an economy as this, you know, a hundred percent of something, and it’s all going to the top—well, someone else is losing. I mean, it’s really that simple. If there’s nothing to increase the size of that economy, if it just functions, and the institutions and the individuals who are running it are extracting the most, then by definition everyone else is getting less. And that’s the system that we have, and that’s where inequality both in our country continues to grow and inequality on a global basis continues to grow. Because the elements of power, whether they’re financial or political, are keeping a status quo that suppresses the ability of most people to do better than where they are.RS: So I want to ask you about their culture. Because you lived a bit, you worked at Goldman Sachs, you lived in that world. How do these people sleep at night? How do they handle their own—you know, why don’t people, when they walk into a room, shun them? [Laughter] Right? That would be the traditional thing. Robert Rubin walks into a room, whether it’s a charity event and everything—people should turn their back! Right? They should refuse to talk to the guy. You know? Until he goes through some kind of soul-searching. They don’t; they actually are given great rounds of applause at charity events.
NP: Yeah, and they make a lot of money in speaking engagements, because—because they have money. I mean, this goes back to what we were talking a little bit in the beginning, that the idea of power and money and the relationship between the two means that people feel good about being associated with Robert Rubin because he’s rich and successful. And so that means anything he’s saying must be true. And in his circles, that concept continues to validate itself. And also, since these people have, you know, I mentioned before, an accountability deficit, they also are remorseless. They don’t look at the damage—and they have caused tremendous damage by their decisions. I mean, Robert Rubin before Glass-Steagall was repealed—and he wasn’t physically there when it was repealed, at this point; he waited ‘til it was voted to be repealed in the Senate, and then he got a job at Citigroup, so he wasn’t there when it was officially—
RS: He got a—let’s be clear. He—this was called, it was called the Citigroup Financial Reform Act or something. The—Citigroup was illegal, because it was a merger of Travelers Insurance and Citibank of an investment—
NP: And Solomon Brothers.
RS: –and Solomon Brothers—investment bank and commercial banking, in violation of a law that FDR had put in place. So it remained for Bill Clinton to challenge that law. And then now, when, you know, Hillary Clinton says no, we’re not going to, we don’t have to revisit it, that thing—well, that was the reason you had Citigroup, and Citigroup had to be bailed out at an enormous cost by the government, and Robert Rubin gets a job.
NP: While Citigroup was illegally merged as an entity that could be backed by the FDIC, whose depositors had their deposits insured by the government, and who could then use those deposits as collateral to make all sorts of speculative bets, which was what ultimately the repeal of Glass-Steagall allowed it to do—but it superseded that repeal by being an illegally constructed entity. Robert Rubin, before he left to become vice chairman of Citigroup and benefit, as you mentioned, $50 million a year from that position, was actively engaged in getting before Congress–and I actually have lots of this testimony, as well as his conversations with Clinton, in my latest book, in “All the President’s Bankers”—he was actively using the fact that this company had superseded the law as a reason to change the law. Literally, it was like he was saying, look, Citigroup is going to do this anyway—hey, by the way, it did—do let’s just ratify it. That was the argument, the fact that it had done something [illegal]. And he made it seem like this would be good for America. And this is where people get embroiled in all this, the populations get embroiled in all this; because you have people like Robert Rubin who clearly benefited enormously from the entire arrangement, from Goldman to Clinton to Treasury Secretary to Citigroup; you know, from a power and money and status position globally—but he argued this would be better for the population.
RS: This is a good last question for me to ask you. You’ve written these books; they are terrific, I recommend them to anybody who wants to get a grasp on the situation. And I have basically two questions for you. One, you are inclined—you worked with Bernie Sanders, and I don’t know whether you support him or not. But one of the issues is going to be, it’s time for a woman president, and Hillary Clinton is such a woman. And that’s—you know, yes; on the other hand, we’ve had an example of women whistleblowers. And so when we talk about, you know, women leadership, the sad thing here is we’re being now presented with a female candidate who has actually been party to bringing a lot of misery to a lot of women, as well as men and children. What is your approach? Because you’re a strong woman; you obviously would like to have women in more prominent positions, and maybe we can conclude on that. And also maybe bring in your current book; what have you learned historically about all this?
NP: I do think it would be great to have a female president. And as you mentioned, there have certainly been women who have taken this notion of injustice and obfuscation of information, and the rise of some people to power that have by definition hurt others, hurt large swaths, millions of people in the process. I don’t think that female is Hillary Clinton or should be Hillary Clinton. And I mostly am disappointed, though I understand her position in the hierarchy of the establishment in which she operates—the, Bill Clinton’s establishment, the Obama establishment; the establishment of maintaining predominantly the status quo that will perpetuate inequality economically, going into the future. For her to have said at the debates that her plan, for example, to push back Wall Street was better than Bernie Sanders’ plan to reinstate a modern-day Glass-Steagall was just ludicrous. I mean, I was just, like, yelling at the TV set, like, and I tweeted—I don’t usually tweet in capital letters, but I had to tweet with capital letters about this. Because she was just so wrong. She threw in the buzzword of shadow banking, and this idea that investment banks like Lehman Brothers that did collapse weren’t like the big banks like Citigroup that didn’t—well, Citigroup and the big banks were, they got a lot of government support in that process. And to divide the two just shows a lack of understanding for how finance works. Which will mean that that’s what we would get from her if she were in office, not to mention all the people that were involved in those decisions along the way that have been her advisors and would probably be her appointees in significant positions of power. So I do not think she would be good for America, and certainly not good for the stability of the financial system as it impacts the real economy.
RS: You are an American original. And that’s a sad comment to make. We should have lots of people who speak up about what they learn working at Goldman Sachs, or what they’ve learned from studying the economy. You should not be this rare bird, you know, flying above the lies. And it’s really quite stunning. But on a bipartisan note, because we’ve bashed Hillary a bit, isn’t one of the points—and this will be my last question—isn’t one of the points of your own writing is that they all sell out? And if you look at it, the passage of the deregulation, you had people who considered themselves wildly progressive; I mean, Barney Frank played a terrible role, and he was head of the House Banking Committee and so forth. And so is it really the issue here not to find just the one right candidate, but really to do something about the power imbalance in this country, in which the banks get to run everything no matter who’s president?
NP: Yeah, I mean, one of the main points—I’ve actually said in the beginning of my writing, my first book, “Other People’s Money,” that I wrote right out of banking, I didn’t take any one political view as better than the other. I simply looked at the system, and what Republicans and Democrats alike had done in collaboration with the major financial players. And it wasn’t one leading the other; it was a collaboration, it remains a collaboration. So from a systemic perspective, it doesn’t matter currently what party is in power; what matters is that the power is a political, financial collaboration that does not benefit the majority of the population. And that is what needs to change.
RS: Thank you, Nomi Prins. And more to come. That’s it for Scheer Intelligence, and once again, the intelligence came from my guest, in this case Nomi Prins, the author of really important books on the banking meltdown. Producers are Josh Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Thanks to NPR West for providing the recording facilities. Kat Yore is the engineer. I’ll see you next time.
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