Over the past several months, I've been doing my level best to try to keep up with what's been going on in terms of personal finance, Wall Street criminality, and bail-outs as the American financial system swirls in the toilet bowl. I've learned more about the sorts of fucked up things these folks were up to with people's retirement funds, nonprofits' endowments, and trillions in federal money in the past six months than I learned in my whole life before that.
And I don't think I'm alone. I think quite a few of us who are concerned with this country's future have been, on some level, trying to make up for years of "I don't have a portfolio, so why should I care?" and "It's so complicated and boring, but I'm sure someone's making sure it keeps on going in its normal, exploitative-as-always path and not devour the world economy!" It's the joy of being concerned about people who were so greedy that they'd even, say, manipulate their buddies on CNBC to help them run short-selling schemes. Or steal money from a Holocaust-remembrance charity.
What's important to realize is that that's exactly what they want you to think. (And that "they" is all the thieves and people who would be labeled thieves if our society were sane.) They don't want you to understand, because if you understood just how much time each day these folks waste thinking about how to take your money home with them, we would have shut the shit down on these clowns years ago. They don't want you to care, because if you did then the music would stop and they'd be left holding billions in toxic CDO's, not your government.
We're supposed to want to just leave it to who we imagine to be either the wise, responsible, and benevolent leaders of Wall Street or, at least, the scheming, cunning, but kept-in-check greed-heads. Because when we do, they pretty much do whatever they want, and we foot the bill with our money, which we get through, I dunno, actually doing something productive.
Here's how Matt Taibbi put it last week in Rolling Stone (of all magazines):
God knows exactly what this does for the taxpayer, but hedge-fund managers sure love the idea. "This is exactly what the financial system needs," said Andrew Feldstein, CEO of Blue Mountain Capital and one of the Morgan Mafia. Strangely, there aren't many people who don't run hedge funds who have expressed anything like that kind of enthusiasm for Geithner's ideas.
As complex as all the finances are, the politics aren't hard to follow. By creating an urgent crisis that can only be solved by those fluent in a language too complex for ordinary people to understand, the Wall Street crowd has turned the vast majority of Americans into non-participants in their own political future. There is a reason it used to be a crime in the Confederate states to teach a slave to read: Literacy is power. In the age of the CDS and CDO, most of us are financial illiterates. By making an already too-complex economy even more complex, Wall Street has used the crisis to effect a historic, revolutionary change in our political system -- transforming a democracy into a two-tiered state, one with plugged-in financial bureaucrats above and clueless customers below.
The most galling thing about this financial crisis is that so many Wall Street types think they actually deserve not only their huge bonuses and lavish lifestyles but the awesome political power their own mistakes have left them in possession of. When challenged, they talk about how hard they work, the 90-hour weeks, the stress, the failed marriages, the hemorrhoids and gallstones they all get before they hit 40.
"But wait a minute," you say to them. "No one ever asked you to stay up all night eight days a week trying to get filthy rich shorting what's left of the American auto industry or selling $600 billion in toxic, irredeemable mortgages to ex-strippers on work release and Taco Bell clerks. Actually, come to think of it, why are we even giving taxpayer money to you people? Why are we not throwing your ass in jail instead?"
But before you even finish saying that, they're rolling their eyes, because You Don't Get It.These people were never about anything except turning money into money, in order to get more money; valueswise they're on par with crack addicts, or obsessive sexual deviants who burgle homes to steal panties. Yet these are the people in whose hands our entire political future now rests.
And because of that we're fucked. These people control a whole lot of power because we don't know enough about the financial system and what the government should be doing to regulate it to know when to be concerned, when to be hopeful, and when to be pissed off.
Last week the story that dominated the news cycle was about those massive bonuses AIGFP handed to its executives, the same people who took the over a 100-year-old firm and wasted its credit rating, its reputation, and its money developing exotic finance tools that neither their regulators nor their clients fully understood. The amount of money spent on those bonuses - around $165 million - isn't much in the face of the money we're spending to try, in vain, to fix the problem and return to the 90's. But it sure made people angry.
And understandably so. While people don't know the ins and the outs of what's going on at AIGFP, most people basically understand that the rot that was in the system before the financial crisis is still there, with the full knowledge of the government. While most Americans don't understand the financial tools AIGFP was creating, they have figured out that some people are so insanely greedy that they're willing to take the entire world down if they can make a few bucks and that the government is too compliant to do anything to stop them.
So the anger at the bonuses at AIGFP isn't exactly the problem, it's the fact that that chapter in American history where some people worked their asses off to get their hands on other people's money but provided nothing useful to society*, all the while expecting the government to subsidize their jobs by assuming their risk, was supposed to be over. Most Americans are already paying the price of this depression by losing their jobs, losing benefits, taking on extra work without extra pay, and losing income. The burden of getting out of this funk was supposed to be shared, not borne by everyone not working on Wall Street while they continue to get their disgustingly huge compensation and party at Bagatelle.
The bonuses made it obvious that change hasn't come to America and that we're not on the path to renewal. Matt Taibbi outlines several other reasons why: further mergers in the finance sector have created more all-powerful, too-big-to-fail firms; the all-too-cozy relationship between the Obama Treasury Department and major players on Wall Street like Goldman Sachs; and smaller, regional commercial banks that need help cannot access TARP (the big bailout from late 2008) money.
And Timothy Geithner's plan for banks, presented this past week, doesn't do much to get banks back to a manageable size with manageable problems, instead focusing on absorbing toxic assets to relieve these folks of the negative consequences of the risks they took.
Of course, most Americans aren't following that closely, and, unfortunately, their anger seems to be the only check on the American financial system that works. Congress and the White House sure as hell don't feel like doing much. The Fed's out of options and the SEC can't do everything. The Treasury Department seems hell-bent on bailing out the banks' investors instead of saving the industry's ability to finance America. And internal regulatory sources, like counter-parties to bad contracts and shareholders, have all the proof they need now that they'll be bailed out by the government before anyone else, reducing any need on their part to make these firms behave like firms that care about their long-term future.
We've got to get more educated and learn when people like Ruth Marcus and Andrew Feldstein are lying and bending the truth to ensure their cash cow's longevity.
And so that we can get pissed off. Again. And again. Until our government actually comes to fear us more than their corporate donors, and know that even though they try to dupe us, we can and will take our votes elsewhere.
Is that expecting too much from the US of A?
*To the folks who protest that the financial sector provides valuable services to society, I agree. I'm referring to folks who sold as many credit default swaps as they could to earn outrageous bonuses from their now-government-subsidized firms. A credit default swap doesn't build a house, it doesn't educate a child, and it doesn't cure someone's disease. If you want to defend the finance sector compensating their employees however they want, go right ahead. But please explain why we should be left footing the bill for the inflated salaries of folks who are harming us.
Also too, the Matt Taibbi article quoted above is must-read, especially if you haven't been paying attention but want to start now. It has a good history of the players involved and part of what caused this clusterfuck.