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How Elite Economic Hucksters Drive America’s Biggest Fraud Epidemics

The work of Alan Greenspan and other unethical economists has cost us trillions of dollars, millions of jobs and endless suffering.

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Editor's note: This article is part of an ongoing AlterNet series, "The Age of Fraud."

What do you get when you throw together economic fraudsters, plutocrats and opportunistic criminals? A financial crisis, that’s what. If you look back over the massive frauds that have swept the country in recent decades, from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s to the 2007-'08 financial crash, this deadly combination always appears.

A dangerous cycle begins when prominent economists pander to plutocrats and bought politicians, who reward them with top posts, where they promote the perverse economic policies that cause fraud epidemics. Crises develop, and millions of people are ripped off. Those who fight for truth are ignored or ruined. The criminals get wealthier, bolder and more politically powerful, and go on to hatch even more devastating cons.

The three most recent financial crises in U.S. history were driven by a special type of fraud called “control fraud” -- cases where the officers who control what look like legitimate entities use them as “weapons” to commit crimes. Each time, Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, played a catastrophic role. First, his policies created the fraud-friendly (criminogenic) environment that produces epidemics of control fraud, then he failed to identify those epidemics and incipient crises, and finally, he failed to counter them.

At the heart of Greenspan’s failure lies an ethical void in the brand of economics that has dominated American universities and policy circles for the last several decades, a brand known as “free market fundamentalism” or the “neoclassical school.” (I call it “theoclassical economics” for its quasi-religious belief system.) Mainstream economists who follow this school assert a deeply flawed and controversial concept known as the “efficient market hypothesis,” which holds that financial markets magically regulate themselves (they automatically “self-correct”) and are thus immune to fraud. When an economist starts believing in that kind of fallacy, he is bound to become blind to reality. Let’s take a look at what blinded Greenspan:

  1. Greenspan knew that markets were “efficient” because the efficient market hypothesis is the foundational pillar underlying modern finance theory.
  2. Markets can’t be efficient if there is control fraud, so there must not be any.
  3. Wait, there are control frauds! Tens of thousands of them.
  4. Then control fraud must not really be harmful, or markets would not be efficient.
  5. Control fraud, therefore, must not be immoral. As crime boss Emilio Barzini put it in The Godfather, “It’s just business.”

As delusional and immoral as this “logic” chain is, many elite economists believe it. This warped perspective has spawned policies so perverse that they turn the world of finance into the optimal environment for criminals. The upshot is that most of our elite financial leaders and professionals have thrown integrity out the window, and we end up with recurrent, intensifying financial crises, de facto immunity for our most elite criminals, and the rise of crony capitalism. Let’s do a little time travel to see exactly how this plays out.

How to stoke a savings and loan fiasco

The Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, California was at the center of the famous crisis that rocked the financial world in the 1980s. A once prudently run company morphed into a casino when S&L associations became deregulated and started doing risky business with depositors’ money. Businessman, GOP darling, and anti-pornography crusader Charles Keating, ironically nicknamed “Mr. Clean,” took over Lincoln in 1984 and got the casino rolling. (It was a special kind of casino where the games were rigged – and not in favor of newlywed brides who were the subject of sexual extortion in Casablanca.) In a classic case of control fraud, Keating devoted himself to turning the company into a weapon of mass financial destruction and a source of wealth for his family. Keating’s “weapon of choice” for his frauds was accounting.