We've Got to Leave This Bankrupt Culture Behind
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"I am pronouncing the depression over!" declared CNBC's irrepressible Jim Cramer on April 2. The next day the unemployment rate, already at the highest level in 25 years, jumped yet again, but Cramer wasn't thinking about the 663,000 jobs that disappeared in March. He was thinking about the market. Mad money. Fast money. Big money. The Dow, after all, has rallied in the weeks since Timothy Geithner announced his bank bailout 2.0. Par-tay! On Wednesday, Cramer rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, in celebration of the 1,000th broadcast of his nightly stock-tip jamboree.
Given Cramer's track record on those tips, there's no reason to believe he's right this time. But for the sake of argument, let's say he is. (And let's hope he is.) The question then arises: What, if anything, have we learned from this decade's man-made economic disaster? It wasn't just trillions of dollars of wealth that went poof in the bubble. Certain American values also crumbled and vanished. Making quick killings by reckless gambling in the markets - rather than by investing long-term in new products, innovations, technologies or services that might grow and benefit America and the world - became the holy grail in the upper echelons of finance.
This was not an exact replay of the preceding dot-com bubble. As a veteran of the tech gold rush recently observed to me, in Silicon Valley "the money comes later" and "the thing you make comes first, however whimsical, silly, microscopic, recondite it may be." On Wall Street over the past decade, the money usually came first, last and in between. There was no "thing" being made at all unless you count the slicing and dicing of debt into financial "products," the incomprehensible derivatives that helped bring down the economy, costing some five million Americans their jobs (so far) and countless more their 401(k)'s.
On the same Friday that the Labor Department reported the latest jobless numbers, the White House released (in the evening, after the network news) some other telling figures on the financial disclosure forms of its top officials. From those we learned more about how much the bubble's culture permeated this administration.
We discovered, for instance, that Lawrence Summers, the president's chief economic adviser, made $5.2 million in 2008 from a hedge fund, D. E. Shaw, for a one-day-a-week job. He also earned $2.7 million in speaking fees from the likes of Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. Those institutions are not merely the beneficiaries of taxpayers' bailouts since the crash. They also benefited during the boom from government favors: the Wall Street deregulation that both Summers and Robert Rubin, his mentor and predecessor as Treasury secretary, championed in the Clinton administration. This dynamic duo's innovative gift to their country was banks "too big to fail."
Some spoilsports raise the conflict-of-interest question about Summers: Can he be a fair broker of the bailout when he so recently received lavish compensation from some of its present and, no doubt, future players? This question can be answered only when every transaction in the new "public-private investment plan" to buy the banks' toxic assets is made transparent. We need verification that this deal is not, as the economist Joseph Stiglitz has warned, a Rube Goldberg contraption contrived to facilitate "huge transfers of wealth to the financial markets" from taxpayers.
But perhaps I've become numb to the perennial and bipartisan revolving-door incestuousness of Washington and Wall Street. I was less shocked by the White House's disclosure of Summers's recent paydays than by a bit of reporting that appeared deep down in the Times follow-up article on that initial news. The reporter Louise Story wrote that Summers had done consulting work for another hedge fund, Taconic Capital Advisors, from 2004 to 2006, while still president of Harvard.