Weekly Audit: Too Big to Fail is Just Too Big

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Last week, President Barack Obama released key legislation designed to fight the banking industry's too-big-to-fail problem. But Obama's plan doesn't actually address too-big-to-fail at all. It reinforces a broken system in which economically dangerous companies are bailed out whenever they drive themselves to the brink of failure.

If we want the economy to support all people, we have to break up the big banks and start treating the creation of good jobs as an economic priority on par with Wall Street rescues.

The editors of The Nation break the political debate over banking into three camps:


       
  • The first camp is composed of bank lobbyists, Republicans and conservative Democrats and wants to do nothing.

  •    
  • Camp two, endorsed by the White House and influential Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), would impose tougher regulations on too-big-to-fail banks to keep them from getting out of control.

  •    
  • The third camp wants to go even further: If a bank is too-big-to-fail, it is also too-big-to-regulate. Companies that pose a danger to the economy have to be split up into smaller firms that cannot induce economic ruin.


The Nation editors rightly see the third strategy as the most sensible. While the "break-up-the-banks" policy is being portrayed as a left-wing pipe dream by cable news networks, the policy actually relies on an age-old observation of conservative economists. Regulators make mistakes, and they often get co-opted by the very industries they are supposed to be supervising.

The practical policy is to impose structural limits on what activities banks can participate in and how big they can get. Just look at the list of high-profile supporters: former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, former Citigroup Chairman John Reed, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King. I don't remember seeing any of those guys at the Iraq War protests.

Many of the regulatory blind spots that brought down the economy were obvious to some policymakers for years. Back in 1994, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) wrote an article for The Washington Monthly warning that derivatives trading was putting the economy in grave danger. Commodities Futures Trading Commission Chair Brooksley Born tried to take action on these derivatives, but was overruled by other regulators, including then-Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, and then-Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, now the top economic adviser to President Obama. Summers and Greenspan even convinced Congress to pass a law banning the regulation of key derivatives, including credit default swaps, which ultimately brought down insurance giant AIG.

Fifteen years after Dorgan's article first ran, The Washington Monthly is featuring it again, along with a recent speech by Dorgan that details massive failures in Wall Street and Washington.

"We had regulators come to town in recent years and willfully boasted that they wanted to be blind as regulators," Dorgan says.

There are good elements of Obama's plan to deal with too-big-to-fail. It gives policymakers the option of putting a too-big-to-fail institution through a special bankruptcy process administered by the executive branch, thus avoiding the problems created in bankruptcy court when Lehman Brothers failed. But the bad part is really bad: Officials would also have the option to provide unlimited bailouts to Big Finance via loans, guarantees and even asset purchases.

As Mike Lillis notes for The Washington Independent, some responsible Democrats like Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) have been objecting to this aspect of the legislation for months. Sherman, in fact, calls it "TARP on steroids," noting that the bank bailout at least came with some meager oversight and a limit on the program's actual size.

The bank lobby is spending money like mad to maintain their stranglehold on the economy. Neither Congress or the administration will change course without intense public pressure. So it was very reassuring last week to see thousands of people protesting the annual meeting of top bank lobby group, the American Bankers Association. David Moberg chronicles the protest in a blog post for Working In These Times that covers speeches by both key union leaders and ordinary people facing foreclosure after watching their tax dollars go to the very bankers who wrecked the economy.

"There was broad agreement on anger at the banks for providing so little, if any, public benefit for the massive bail-out, and for so quickly returning to the greed and abuse that precipitated the crisis," Moberg writes.

Laura Flanders covers the protests for GRITtv, including video of protesters chanting "Bust up big banks!" In a roundtable discussion with Christina Clausen of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union, George Goehl of National People's Action and Rob Robertson of the Right To The City Alliance, Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi explains the overriding impotence of the regulations Congress is about to approve. Regulators will not be able to crack down on abusive derivatives, a full 8,000 of 8,200 banks will be exempt from Consumer Financial Protection Agency oversight, while the same agencies that screwed up heading into this crisis will be charged with preventing the next one.

"They've had sweeping powers to do whatever they wanted," Taibbi says. "They've had this regulatory power all along."

What we need are good jobs, and lots of them. Obama's economic stimulus package has made tangible economic progress. It's saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, and is clearly responsible for the turnaround in gross domestic product (GDP) we saw in the third quarter. But a full 17% of the workforce remains unable to find full-time work, as Julianne Malveux explains for The Progressive.

When Wall Street crashed in 1929 and unleashed the Great Depression, the government eventually stepped in as an employer-of-last-resort. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). built schools, parks, roads and bridges which still serve our communities today. Both the WPA and the CCC employed literally millions of people--in the 1930s. It's a model that could work very well today.

As the current recession makes clear, ending too-big-to-fail and guaranteeing a good job for everyone in our society who wants one are the two most critical structural reforms our economy needs. Don't let lawmakers forget it.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

There's more...

Dorgan will offer amendment on importing prescription drugs

The White House agreement with the pharmaceutical industry, which is reflected in the Senate Finance Committee's health care bill, is one of the most shameful episodes of the health care reform process. Presidential candidate Barack Obama had promised to "put an end to the game-playing" in Washington, citing in one television ad the deal the pharmaceutical industry wrote into the Medicare prescription drug legislation. Yet in order to bring big Pharma on board with health care reform, the White House "stood by a behind-the-scenes deal to block any Congressional effort to extract cost savings from them beyond an agreed-upon $80 billion."

Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota says no deal, according to Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post:

A Senate Democratic leader is hoping to blow up the deal reached between the White House, drug makers and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), by introducing an amendment on the floor to allow prescription drugs to be re-imported from Canada.

It's one of the simplest ways to reduce health care costs but was ruled out by the agreement, which limits Big Pharma's contribution to health care reform to $80 billion over ten years.

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan, a member of Democratic leadership, isn't a party to that bargain. "Senator Dorgan intends to offer an amendment to the health reform bill and his expectation is that it will be one of the first amendments considered," his spokesman Justin Kitsch told HuffPost in an e-mail. "Prescription drug importation is an immediate way to put downward pressure on health care costs. It has bipartisan support, and has been endorsed by groups such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses and AARP." [...]

Jim Manley, senior communications adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said that he sees no reason the amendment won't get a floor vote.

If an amendment on reimporting drugs from Canada gets to the Senate floor, it is hard to see how it fails to pass. Grim notes that a separate bill to allow re-importation of prescription drugs from Canada "has 30 cosponsors, several Republicans among them." I hope the White House doesn't start twisting arms to keep that amendment off the Senate floor.

Giving the government the ability to negotiate prescription drug prices would bring costs down even more. Obama should support that reform, since he says he won't let the health care bill add a dime to the deficit. But apparently, not taking that step was part of the White House deal with drug companies.

Speaking of backroom deals, Alexander Bolton reports for The Hill, citing "senior Democratic aides," that Reid will "not include legislation repealing antitrust exemptions for the health insurance industry in the healthcare package he will bring to the Senate floor."

So far the powerful insurance industry has held back waging a full-out battle against Democratic health reform proposals because companies stand to gain tens of millions of new customers. But adding language that would open health insurance companies to prosecution by the Justice Department would provoke a strong counterattack from the industry.

Hey, why take something valuable away from the insurance industry (the ability to fix prices) just because we're about to hand them a "bonanza" (individual mandate to buy their products)? They might run ads against us.

It is time to replace Reid as Senate majority leader. Since Senate Democrats are unlikely to take that step, I agree with Chris Bowers that Reid losing re-election next year wouldn't be such a bad thing. Getting a more effective majority leader, like Dick Durbin of Illinois or Chuck Schumer of New York, would make up for losing Reid's Senate seat.

There's more...

MyDD Interview with Byron Dorgan

On Wednesday June 17, I had the opportunity to speak with North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan about his new book "Reckless!: How Debt, Deregulation, and Dark Money Nearly Bankrupted America (And How We Can Fix It!)", as well as a whole range of topics in front of the 111th Congress, including healthcare and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.

Below I have pasted a rush transcript of the interview, the questions from which were culled from among those submitted through Twitter @jonathanhsinger. You can also download the audio of the interview as a large .mp3 file or listen to it using the player below:

Jonathan Singer: Your fellow North Dakotan Kent Conrad is trying to advance what he calls a compromise on healthcare that would have co-ops as opposed to a public option. What's your feeling about that?

Byron Dorgan: Well, he and I have not discussed that. I do think it's an effort to find some sort of middle ground. The Republicans have indicated, almost all of the Republicans have said the public option is off the table for them. They could not and would not support it. So it's useful to take a look at alternatives. The question is, are these workable alternatives? And I don't know all the details of the cooperative proposal. But I think it's an inventive way to try to see if there's some potential agreement in areas.

There's more...

ACTION: Fight for your Freedom to Travel

(Cross-posted to Daily Kos.)

U.S. Citizens can travel to any country in the world except one. It's not the one that the U.S. fought a bloody war with 40 years ago. It's not the one that seized the U.S. embassy 30 years ago. No, we cannot travel to the country which 50 years ago overthrew a military dictator who had taken power in a coup d'état. None of these countries are democracies, but only one is subject to a travel ban.

With the announcement of the "Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act", a bipartisan initiative introduced by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Reps. Bill Delahunt (D, MA-10) and Jeff Flake (R, AZ-6) in March, it seems as if we may at last be approaching a sane policy on travel to Cuba. But first, we need to overcome the obstructionism of the gang who thinks that 50 years of failed policy isn't enough.

There's more...

Vilsack confirmation hearing linkfest

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack appears to be on track for unanimous confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of Agriculture in Barack Obama's cabinet. At his confirmation hearing yesterday, Republicans didn't ask hostile questions, and Vilsack didn't have to explain away any embarrassing behavior like Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner's failure to fully meet his tax obligations over a period of years.

Despite the lack of drama, Vilsack made a number of noteworthy comments during the hearing. Join me after the jump for some highlights and analysis.

There's more...

Diaries

Advertise Blogads