Fleecing What's Left of the Treasury
The lobbyists and corporate lawyers, the heads of financial firms and the crooks who control Wall Street, all those who spent the last three decades assuring us that government was part of the problem and should get out of the way, are now busy looting the U.S. treasury. They are also working feverishly inside the Democratic and Republican parties to blunt any effective regulatory reform as they pass on their distressed assets to us. The process is stunning in its hubris and mendacity, and two of the most potent enablers of this unprecedented act of corporate welfare are John McCain and Barack Obama.
The federal government, reeling backward from the meltdown of financial markets, is now considering taking responsibility for the bad assets of numerous financial companies. But if that intervention does not include robust new mechanisms of regulation, accountability and control we will see nothing more than a massive taxpayer-funded bailout of stockholders and the financial industry.
The rhetoric of the two presidential candidates about the crisis has been filled with pious outrage about the abuses of Wall Street and short on actual solutions. John McCain and Barack Obama know, after all, who funds their campaigns. The financial industry has given $22.5 million in the current election cycle to Obama and $19.6 million to McCain, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And the financial industry has come around to collect. Two of the biggest financial groups in Washington, the Financial Services Roundtable and the Mortgage Bankers Association, have been holding meetings with McCain and Obama’s economic advisers. They are working with the campaigns to protect the unregulated power of financial industries and at the same time to shift bad debt to taxpayers. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Financial Services Roundtable, made up of the very banks and firms that got us into this mess, has developed draft legislation. The Roundtable has called a meeting this week with the chief executives of more than 50 banks, brokerages and insurers. The three-day meeting includes private, closed-door sessions on Thursday with Obama economic adviser Ian Soloman and McCain adviser Ike Brannon. Those hovering around Obama — economists like Paul Volcker, Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers and Laura Tyson — bear as much responsibility for the dismantling of government regulation as those advising McCain.
If the financial-services industry is able to suck us dry, our assets, from our homes to our retirement investments, will continue to tumble. Taxes will go up. Jobs will be lost. The grim economic indicators will get worse. The dollar, which has already lost about a third of its value against the euro, will continue to plummet. The rate of foreclosures, one in every 416 U.S. households in August, will skyrocket. Consumer spending, the engine of the U.S. economy, will continue to decline. Industrial production, which has fallen for three consecutive quarters, will fall further. Unemployment, which shot up to 6.1 percent in August from 5.7 percent in July, will get worse. These tremors presage an earthquake.
Ralph Nader, who has spent his adult life battling corporations, understands more about the rise of the corporate state and the steady fleecing of American citizens by corporations than anyone else in the country. The core of his message is that Republicans and Democrats are hostage to corporate power.
Nader warned in a letter to Congress on July 23 that the federal government’s bank insurance fund may be insufficient to handle the developing crisis in the banking industry. The letter was, at the time, greeted with indifference and ridicule. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., at a congressional hearing, mentioned the letter and assured those present that “Our banks are well capitalized, our deposit insurance fund is sound. There’s absolutely no factual basis for saying that there’s not money there to pay.”
Two months later our federal bank insurance fund, which insures our bank deposits, is being swiftly emptied. The collapse of a huge commercial bank, such as Bank of America, which has assumed control of Merrill Lynch’s losses with no real idea of how extensive these losses are, could see ordinary depositors wiped out.
Nader warned eight years ago that the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae) and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) were about to tank like the savings and loan industry of the 1980s and ’90s. Because his warnings were ignored, taxpayers today face losing billions of dollars to cover these bad debts.
Nader, in a letter to Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox in 2006, criticized the exorbitant salaries of government-sponsored enterprise executives Jamie Gorelick, Daniel Mudd, Robert J. Levin and Timothy Howard. He noted in his letter that their financial incentives were in direct conflict with consumer financial security. A grave moral hazard was created by the accounting manipulations they sanctioned, Nader said. These manipulations benefited their personal wealth, yet there was no penalty for being caught.
Nader has called for an immediate halt to the increase in the national debt. He demands an end to corporate subsidies and unconditional taxpayer bailouts of corporations. And he has called for aggressive prosecution of corporate criminals.
“Given the contrast between the ‘free market’ ideology of the Republicans and the corporate or state socialism that is their increasing practice, the time is ripe for full congressional hearings next year on the organized power, greed and lack of regulation that is shaking the foundations of Wall Street,” Nader said in prepared remarks delivered to editors at The New York Times’ Washington bureau.
Nader has come up with 10 market reforms that he says need to be implemented immediately along with any bailout. These reforms are:
- No bailouts without conditions and reciprocity in the form of stock warrants.
- No more lobbying for any company that is bailed out.
- No golden parachutes or get-out-of-jail-free cards for guilty executives.
- No bailouts without public hearings.
- Reduce the moral hazard in U.S. mortgage markets by introducing covered bonds for the majority of mortgage products, as is done in Western Europe. That gives institutions that finance mortgages an incentive to be prudent, because they cannot just unload them and wipe their hands clean of the liability, but are instead on the hook if the homeowner defaults.
- Maintain neighborhood stability and housing security by passing a law with a sunset clause allowing below-median-value homeowners facing foreclosure the right to “rent to own” their homes at fair market value rates.
- Avoid future housing bubbles by removing implicit government guarantees for new mortgages that exceed thresholds of greater than 15 to 20 times the annual fair market rent value of the home.
- Make the Federal Reserve a Cabinet position, so it is accountable to Congress, as well as make sure all Federal Reserve Bank presidents are appointed by the president and answerable to Congress.
- Reduce conflicts of interest by taking away power for auditor and rating agency selection from companies and placing it in the hands of the SEC to be administered on random assignment.
- Implement a securities speculation tax, starting with derivatives, to deter casino-style capitalism.
You can vote for Obama or, if you are really into self-delusion, you can support McCain. But you owe it to yourself, even if you erroneously blame Nader for the election of George W. Bush, to remember these Nader reforms. Hold them up against the proposed reforms that will soon be issued by the McCain and Obama camps. If the Nader reforms are not adopted, if we bail out our corporate masters with hundreds of billions of tax dollars without instituting draconian market reform and launching criminal prosecution, we will be left to bear the cross of corporate malfeasance. We will pay for corporate crime. We will leave those who robbed us free to plunder.
Chris Hedges is a leading writer on the subjects of religion, war and empire. His critically acclaimed books, such as “American Fascists,” can be found here. Hedges’ Truthdig column appears every Monday.