Weekly Audit: Why the Rich Can't Afford to Get Richer

Weekly Audit: Why the Rich Can't Afford to Get Richer

by Zach Carter, TMC MediaWire Blogger

If we want our economy to be strong and stable, we have to start thinking about it as a product of community--not a get rich quick scheme. As unemployment escalates and the housing crisis deepens, ordinary people are feeling the economic pinch. In the meantime, corporate executives and shareholders are coasting above the storm. If we want to tear down the useless casino that is Wall Street, our wealthiest citizens will have to pitch in when times get tough.

Salon carries an excellent three-part email exchange between Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund, and John Talbott, a reformed Goldman Sachs investment banker. Taken together, the emails constitute a thorough, in-depth analysis of the causes of the economic crisis, needed reforms and political hurdles to making policy changes. Johnson's basic argument is as frightening as it is accurate: Bankers line our elected representatives' pocketbooks, convincing them to re-write regulations that made big bonuses for bankers and a catastrophe for everyone else.

Some of Talbott's most interesting observations concern Wall Street's epic transformation. Over the past three decades, our financial sector has morphed from a kind of economic rebar to a wrecking ball. Once upon a time, the financial industry provided loansto businesses and entrepreneurs and funded constructive enterprises. Today, almost all of this activity has been replaced by hedge fund speculation. As a result of excessive deregulation, a wild array of complex transactions called derivatives have developed on Wall Street. Many derivatives, including the credit default swaps that brought down AIG, are intended to provide insurance against losses.

But this readily available "insurance" has removed any sense of risk from the minds of U.S. financiers. All kinds of casino experiments have come in play over the last several years because traders could insure any bet, however crazy, against losses. The whole point of a financial sector is to make sure that good ideas get funding. Instead, we've guaranteed that risky ideas gets funding, even when the idea is socially destructive and financially unsound, like, say, subprime lending.

As David Sirota emphasizes in Truthdig, this financial recklessness has only deepened existing economic inequality. The wealthiest 1% of U.S. citizens have the greatest share of the nation's income since 1929, the onset year of the Great Depression. That's not just a coincidence. When economic inequality is out of control, the economy itself becomes unstable. If everybody is broke, no one has enough to buy the stuff that makes the economy go-round.

There's a paradox buried in all the instability. Even though outrageous inequality is bad for business, it's not necessarily bad for businessmen (Yes, businessmen. Women are still largely excluded from the top tier of corporate decision-making). When the whole economy pays the price for executive excess, the executives themselves don't actually take the hit. Even when elites lose their jobs, they stay rich. When people who depend on their paychecks for survival get the axe, it's a life-altering, often devastating, experience.

There's something we can do about this, Sirota notes. We need to treat the rich like members of a community, rather than an isolated special interest whose demands must be balanced against other special interests. When a community needs to pay for something, the people who can afford to pay pony up. We have real problems right now. There's nothing wrong with taxing the wealthy to fund them.

But why worry? The bailout is working, and banks on the mend, right? Maybe not so much. The Real News explains how bank profits don't always equal economic progress. Wells Fargo just booked a massive second-quarter profit, but the numbers are largely divorced from any economically useful activity.

Foreclosures are soaring, and bank lending is way down. Even though the banks are booking big profits, they aren't putting much money into the economy. How is this possible? Well, banking basically involves two steps. First, the bank borrows money at a low interest rate. Then, it makes a loan at a higher interest rate. The difference is the profit. Right now financing costs for banks are next to nothing, thanks to a host of government programs. Even if you don't make many loans, it's hard to lose money when you can borrow it for free.

As Steve Benen emphasizes for The Washington Monthly, using the stock market as as measure of economic vitality has proven pretty silly over the past few years. Back in February, just about every conservative pundit was screaming that the decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average was purely a result of President Barack Obama's economic policies.

Obama's economic record is not perfect. He has continued the Bush administration's bank bailouts, and his stimulus package wasn't nearly big enough to fight this recession. But some of Obama's reform ideas have been very good, and he actually got a stimulus package through a very reluctant Congress. Now that the Dow is back on the ascent, are any of those conservative talking heads cheering Obama's proposal to create a new financial regulator focused on protecting consumers? Well, no. As it turns out, the stock market is pretty fickle. Its daily and weekly movements can rarely be attributed to individual economic policies. The things that make stocks advance don't necessarily create new jobs.

That new consumer regulator is by far the best part of Obama's financial regulatory overhaul. Harvard Professor and bailout watchdog Elizabeth Warren explains why in this video, available at AlterNet. They've also published a piece I wrote on the bank lobby's insane assault on the plan.

But even if the entire crazy bailout actually does work, the solution won't last without other major economic reforms. In The Progressive, Naomi Klein argues that the surreal boom-and-bust cycle of U.S. capitalism is an awful lot like a Sarah Palin fairy tale, a world in which the most outrageous structural imbalances never result in problems for ordinary people because a new dose of market magic swoops in at the last minute to save the day.

"What Palin was saying is what is built into the very DNA of capitalism: the idea that the world has no limits. She was saying that there is no such thing as consequences, or real-world deficits. Because there will always be another frontier, another Alaska, another bubble. Just move on and discover it. Tomorrow will never come," Klein writes.

If we want to get away from this predatory cycle, we have to give ordinary citizens more influence over the legislative process. As Talbott noted in Salon, that means demanding our due.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

Tags: AlterNet, David Sirota, Elizabeth Warren, faisal islam, john talbott, Naomi Klein, Salon, Simon Johnson, steven benen, The Media Consortium, the progressive, The Real News, TMC, Truthdig, Washington Monthly, weekly audit, zach carter (all tags)

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