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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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Economists who pander to plutocrats have a great advantage over scholars in other fields: There is no reputational penalty among your peers for being dead wrong. Benston got an endowed chair at Emory, Fischel was made dean of the Univerisity of Chicago’s Law School, and Greenspan was made Chairman of the Fed. Those who got control fraud right and fought the elite scams and their powerful political patrons – people like Edwin Gray, head of the FHLBB, and Joe Selby, head of supervision in Texas – saw their careers ended. 

Consider what that perverse pattern indicates about how badly ethics have fallen in the both economics and government. 

How to create a regulatory black hole

Alan Greenspan was Ayn Rand’s protégé, but he moved radically to the wacky side of Rand on the issue of financial fraud. And that, friends, is pretty wacky. Greenspan pushed the idea that preventing fraud was not a legitimate basis for regulation, and said so in a famous encounter with Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Chair Brooksley Born. “I don’t think there is any need for a law against fraud,” Born recalls Greenspan telling her. Greenspan actually believed the market would sort itself out if any fraud occurred. Born knew she had a powerful foe on any regulation.

She was right. Greenspan, with the rabid support of the Rubin wing of the Clinton administration, along with Republican Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee Phil Gramm, crushed Born’s effort to regulate credit default swaps (CDS). The plutocrats and their political allies deliberately created what’s known as a regulatory black hole – a place where elite criminals could commit their crimes under the cover of perpetual night.

Greenspan chose another Fed economist, Patrick Parkinson, to testify on behalf of the bill to create the regulatory black hole for these dangerous financial instruments. Parkinson offered the old line that efficient markets easily excluded fraud -- otherwise, they wouldn’t be efficient markets! (Parkinson would later tell the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission in 2011 that the “whole concept” of a related financial instrument known as an “ABS CDO” had been an “abomination”). Greenspan’s successor richly rewarded Parkinson for being stunningly wrong in his belief: Ben Bernanke appointed Parkinson -- who had no experience as a supervisor or examiner -- as the Fed’s head of supervision. 

Lynn Turner, former chief accountant of the SEC, told me of Greenspan’s infamous question to his group of senior officials who met at the Fed in late 1998 or early 1999 (roughly the same time as Greenspan’s conversation with Born): "Why does it matter if the banks are allowed to fudge their numbers a little bit?" What’s wrong with a “little bit” of fraud? 

Conservatives often support the “broken windows” theory of criminal activity, which asserts that you stop serious blue-collar crime by cracking down on minor offenses. Yet mysteriously, they never apply the concept to white-collar financial crimes by elites. The little-bit-of fraud-is-ok concept got made into law in the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which created the regulatory black hole for credit default swaps. That black hole was compounded by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under the leadership of Wendy Gramm, spouse of Senator Phil Gramm.

Enron’s fraudulent leaders were delighted to exploit that black hole, because they were engaged in a massive control fraud. They appointed Wendy Gramm to their board of directors and proceeded to use derivatives to manipulate prices and aid their cartel in driving electricity prices far higher on the Pacific Coast. In a bizarre irony, the massive increase in prices led to the defeat of California Governor Gray Davis (the leading opponent of the cartel) and his replacement by Governor Schwarzenegger – a man who was part of the group that met secretly with Enron’s leadership to try to defeat Davis’s efforts to get the federal regulators to kill the cartel.