Weekly Audit: Want Economic Justice? Then it's Time to Act

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed a financial reform package that includes a handful of important reforms, but it won’t fundamentally change the relationship between banks and society. Wall Street still has a vice grip on our economy, and lawmakers still find it very difficult to stand up to bigwig financiers.

The real fight for our economy will involve future legislative battles with bankers. Winning those battles will require sweeping action by engaged citizens. The good news is, critical progressive mobilization is already happening. Public outcry helped fuel the fire for Senate reform. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), has said that the Wall Street reform bill he pushed through the House last year would have been much stronger in today’s atmosphere of outspoken economic unrest.

Focus on the Fed

So what’s good about the bill the Senate just passed? As Annie Lowrey explains for The Washington Independent, the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending programs will finally be subjected to public scrutiny.

The Fed served as the U.S. government’s chief bailout engine during the crisis. It injected trillions of dollars into the banking system without any oversight. We still don’t know who got the vast majority of that money, or what collateral the Fed accepted in return. There are all sorts of potential scandals, ranging from sweetheart deals the Fed cut with hedge funds to the trillions of dollars in loans to megabanks with no strings attached.

Of particular interest are the “Maiden Lane vehicles”—programs the Fed devised to purchase or guarantee assets from Bear Stearns and AIG. These were explicit bailouts for individual firms. We know almost nothing about the Bear Stearns bailout, and what little we do know about the AIG bailout is unsavory to say the least— big bonuses for AIG’s employees, with little or no effort to limit the impact on taxpayers.

Reconciliation

There are still a handful of important fights as the House and Senate iron out the differences between their respective versions of the bill. As I emphasize for AlterNet, a host of major issues are still on the table, including consumer protection rules and fixing the derivatives casino. These changes could be gutted entirely or dramatically strengthened during negotiations between the House and Senate.

The final bill will not dramatically alter Wall Street. As Roger Bybee explains for In These Times, the Democratic leadership has been trying to both establish meaningful reforms and simultaneously maintain its campaign finance relationship with megabanks. Republicans have almost universally attempted to block any reform altogether.

Regulators will get a handful of important new tools, including the authority to shut down complex banks on the verge of collapse, the ability to monitor derivatives and a have new set of powers to protect consumers. That’s all good, but we’ll still be living with too-big-to-fail behemoth banks that engage in reckless trading and exploit consumers.

Engaging activists

That means that the real business of fixing the financial system is still to come. And, as Christopher Hayes emphasizes for The Nation, that business is not going to be accomplished without serious, organized progressive activists putting pressure on political leaders to act in the public interest, rather than the interests of the corporate class.

When the country suffered a trauma that massively discredited the establishment rulers, the Democratic Party became the establishment. And progressive groups in DC, under stern White House orders not to cause trouble (don’t show up at his door! he’s a donor! we might nominate him for something!), descended into what one organizer calls “grotesque transactionalism” . . . . If we’re going to get reform on the scale we need, bank lobbyists and members of Congress alike have to be confronted with the terrifying thought that the system from which they profit might just be run over—that 700 angry protesters might show up on their lawn.

As Hayes details, Bank of America lobbyist Gregory Baer woke up last Sunday with exactly that– 700 protesters in his front yard. That kind of pressure gets results. It took Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven years to enact his New Deal financial reforms. Earlier in the 20th Century, it took more than a decade for public opinion to align itself with the corporate crackdowns pushed by Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. It’s reasonable to expect the fight for fair finance to take more than two years, and important to fight hard for it.

The minimum reforms are already clear. Essentially, we need to bring banking back to the model that persisted from the 1930s into the 1980s—an era with no serious financial crises or bailouts. Our current financial woes stem from the systematic dismantling and deregulation of this system over the past 30 years.

State-run banks?

But we also need to learn from more recent economic experiments. As Ellen Brown notes for Yes! Magazine, the state of North Dakota has been largely insulated from much of the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008. Part of the reason for the state’s relative stability lies in the fact that it operates its own bank.

North Dakota’s direct supervision of one institution among the hundreds of banks that operate in the state has helped insulate it from the credit storm on Wall Street. The state has its own engine of credit, and can keep funds flowing to businesses that need it, even in the middle of a crisis.

The prospect of state-run banking may seem radical, but it isn’t. It’s a practical proposal based on the established, real-life success of the Bank of North Dakota. As Brown notes, five other states have legislation pending that would create their very own banks—Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington, Illinois and Michigan, while Hawaii recently approved a study to determine the usefulness of a bank run by that state.

The financial reform bill the Senate just passed was a good start, but we’ve got a long way to go. We’re not going to get there without a committed community of progressive activists who demand that the economy serve society, not only entrenched corporate interests.

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.

 

 

Weekly Audit: Unemployment Fueling Political Storm

By Zach Carter, Media Consortium Blogger

Unemployment figures in the U.S. are staggering: The official rate stands at 10.2%, the highest in 26 years. A broader measure that includes people who are involuntarily working part-time or who have given up looking for work is at 17.5%. That's a full-blown economic emergency.

But, as Joshua Holland explains for AlterNet, President Barack Obama's response to the unemployment crisis has not matched the urgency of his response to the crisis on Wall Street. This isn't just unfair, it's bad economics.

"It's important to understand that the economic crisis in which we find ourselves is not just a function of a shaky financial system but of a crash in consumption that's come along with the evaporation of $14 trillion worth of the wealth of American families," Holland writes.

Widespread joblessness can be every bit as damaging to the economic structure as a financial crisis. When people are out of work, they buckle down on household expenses. When several million people cut back at the same time, the economic machine grinds to a halt. If people are not buying and selling stuff, the economy isn't working.

As Mary Kane explains for The Washington Independent, about 40% of families don't have enough money to cover expenses through a three-month stretch of unemployment--even if one member of the household is receiving unemployment benefits. Kane highlights a Brandeis University study that reveals the haggard state of the American household and the unfair distribution of wealth along racial lines. A full 66% of African-American and Latino families can't afford three months without work. At a time when 5.6 million workers have been jobless for at least six months, the study highlights just how dire finances have become for many households.

GRITtv's Laura Flanders discusses potential labor market remedies with economist Dean Baker and The Nation's John Nichols. Baker suggests a work-share arrangement, in which employers cut back on their workers' hours to allow more people to work. To prevent losses for households, the government would step in and pay for the shortfall in hours. Employers would have more part-time jobs available, but the government would make sure everyone was paid as if they were working full-time. Baker also endorses a public jobs program, which he says could be especially useful in cities like Detroit and Cleveland that have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn.

Nichols highlights the political consequences of failing to fix the unemployment mess. Unemployment directly affects the lives of voters. If widespread joblessness persists through November 2010, Democrats will net huge Congressional losses. If Obama thinks it's hard to garner bipartisan support for his legislative priorities now, imagine a few dozen more Republican obstructionists.

It's not that Obama failed to respond to the unemployment crisis. He did. That's what the stimulus package was all about. Today's 10.2% unemployment is a catastrophe, but it would be more like 12% without the stimulus package. But, given the seriousness of the issue, Obama is not giving unemployment enough attention.

In fact, Obama's economic priorities are a mirror-image of his campaign promises, as Robert Scheer argues in both a column for TruthDig and an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! After talking tough about reining in recklessness on Wall Street and making the financial system more accountable, Obama has hired many of the very policy makers who pushed through the deregulatory agenda back in the 1990s. Top Obama administration officials like Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Gary Gensler and Neal Wolin helped make this mess in the first place.

"This is not a minor criticism," Scheer says. "I think the guy is betraying his own presidency."

Obama's timid efforts to rein in Wall Street and heal the ailing job market are setting the stage for a political disaster. If Obama and Congressional Democrats can't take strong action to fix the economy, they will find themselves with much narrower majorities next November. The economy, and the public institutions that support it, are supposed to work for everyone, not just the financial elite.

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.

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