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Matt Taibbi helps us see ourselves, and the leaders we elect to run America

29 May 2010

I strongly recommend reading this in full:  “Wall Street’s War“, Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, 10 June 2010 — “Congress looked serious about finance reform – until America’s biggest banks unleashed an army of 2,000 paid lobbyists”  Excerpt:

It’s early May in Washington, and something very weird is in the air. As Chris Dodd, Harry Reid and the rest of the compulsive dealmakers in the Senate barrel toward the finish line of the Restoring American Financial Stability Act – the massive, year-in-the-making effort to clean up the Wall Street crime swamp – word starts to spread on Capitol Hill that somebody forgot to kill the important reforms in the bill. As of the first week in May, the legislation still contains aggressive measures that could cost once-indomitable behemoths like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase tens of billions of dollars. Somehow, the bill has escaped the usual Senate-whorehouse orgy of mutual back-scratching, fine-print compromises and freeway-wide loopholes that screw any chance of meaningful change.

… In the weeks leading up to the vote on the reform bill, I hear one variation or another on this same theme from Senate insiders: that the usual process of chipping away at key legislation is not taking place with its customary dispatch, despite a full-court press by Wall Street. The financial-services industry has reportedly flooded the Capitol with more than 2,000 paid lobbyists; even veteran members are stunned by the intensity of the blitz. “They’re trying everything,” says Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio. Wall Street’s army is especially imposing given that the main (really, the only) progressive coalition working the other side of the aisle, Americans for Financial Reform, has been in existence less than a year – and has just 60 unpaid “volunteer” lobbyists working the Senate halls.

The companies with the most at stake are particularly well-connected. The lobbying campaign for Goldman Sachs, for instance, is being headed up by a former top staffer for Rep. Barney Frank, Michael Paese, who is coordinating some 14 different lobbying firms to fight on Goldman’s behalf. The bank is also represented by Capitol Hill heavyweights like former House majority leader Dick Gephardt and former Reagan chief of staff Ken Duberstein. All told, there are at least 40 ex-staffers of the Senate Banking Committee – and even one former senator, Trent Lott – lobbying on behalf of Wall Street.

… As it neared the finish line, the Restoring American Financial Stability Act was almost unprecedentedly broad in scope, in some ways surpassing even the health care bill in size and societal impact. It would rein in $600 trillion in derivatives, create a giant new federal agency to protect financial consumers, open up the books of the Federal Reserve for the first time in history and perhaps even break up the so-called “Too Big to Fail” giants on Wall Street. The recent history of the U.S. Congress suggests that it was almost a given that they would fuck up this one real shot at slaying the dragon of corruption that has been slowly devouring not just our economy but our whole way of life over the past 20 years. Yet with just weeks left in the nearly year-long process at hammering out this huge new law, the bad guys were still on the run. Even the senators themselves seemed surprised at what assholes they weren’t being. This new baby of theirs, finance reform, was going to be that one rare kid who made it out of the filth and the crime of the hood for everybody to be proud of.

Then reality set in.

What’s political reality in America?  Taibbi explains…

In one of the most absurd and indefensible retreats of the war, a decisive majority of senators voted to deny themselves the power to audit the Federal Reserve on behalf of the American people. When it comes to protecting the world’s wealthiest banks from public scrutiny, it turns out, Democrats and Republicans have no trouble achieving bipartisanship.

This insane outgrowth of jungle capitalism has spun completely out of control since 2000, when Congress deregulated the derivatives market. That market is now roughly 100 times bigger than the federal budget and 20 times larger than both the stock market and the GDP. Unregulated derivative deals sank AIG, Lehman Brothers and Greece, and helped blow up the global economy in 2008. Reining in derivatives is the key battle in the War for Finance Reform. Without regulation of this critical market, Wall Street could explode another mushroom cloud of nuclear leverage and risk over the planet at any time.

… When it came time for the Senate to do its version, however, the lobbyists were in for a surprise. Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas – best known as one of the few Democrats to vote for Bush’s tax cuts – suddenly got religion and closed the loophole. Facing a tough primary battle against an opponent who was vowing to crack down on Wall Street, Lincoln tweaked the language so derivatives reform would apply to any greedy financial company that makes billions trading risky swaps in the dark.

Republicans went apeshit, pulling the same tactics they tried to gut the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Sen. Enzi, back at the lectern after his failed attempt to claim that the CFPB was a government plot to control the orthodontics industry, barked to the Senate gallery that Lincoln’s proposal would harm not millionaire swap dealers at JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, but “a wheat-grower in Wyoming.” Unmoved by such goofy rhetoric, the Senate shot down an asinine Republican amendment that would have overturned Lincoln’s reform by a vote of 59-39.

… In a heartwarming demonstration of the Senate’s truly bipartisan support for Wall Street, Sen. Sam Brownback – a Republican from Kansas – stepped in to help Democrats kill one of the bill’s most vital reforms. … Senators may enjoy scolding Goldman Sachs in public hearings, but when it comes time to vote, they’ll pick Wall Street over Detroit every time.

… The Senate is designed to function as a kind of ongoing negotiation between public sentiment and large financial interests, an endless tug of war in which senators maneuver to strike a delicate mathematical balance between votes and access to campaign cash. The problem is that sometimes, when things get really broken, the very concept of a middle ground between real people and corrupt special interests becomes a grotesque fallacy.

In times like this, we need our politicians not to bridge a gap but to choose sides and fight. In this historic battle over finance reform, when we had a once-in-a-generation chance to halt the worst abuses on Wall Street, many senators made the right choice. In the end, however, the ones who mattered most picked wrong – and a war that once looked winnable will continue to drag on for years, creating more havoc and destroying more lives before it is over.

About our corrupt financial system

  1. Please read this. For the sake of yourself, your children, and their children, 2 June 2009 — Taibbi’s first article about Goldman.
  2. About Goldman Sachs, the exemplar of our financial system, 21 July 2009
  3. More about “Government Sachs” (they own America; we just live here), 31 July 2009

Posts about theft pretending to be solutions for the financial crisis

  1. Slowly a few voices are raised about the pending theft of taxpayer money, 21 September 2008
  2. The Paulson Plan will buy assets cheap, just as all good cons offer easy money to the marks, 30 September 2008
  3. A reminder – the TARP program is just theft, 24 November 2008
  4. A solution to our financial problems: steal wealth from other nations, 2 February 2009
  5. Stand by for action – more theft of our money being planned in Washington, 4 February 2009
  6. Update: yes, the Paulson Plan was just theft, 14 February 2009
  7. Now is the time for America to get angry, 24 March 2009
  8. America on its way from superpower to banana republic, 28 March 2009
  9. Bush’s bailout plan is now Obama’s. His quiet eloquence guides the sheep into the pen, 30 March 2009
  10. “The Greatest Swindle Ever Sold”, by Andy Kroll in The Nation, 28 May 2009

Afterword

  • For more about this website, see the About the FM website page.
  • Send emails to fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
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