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Why Won't Obama Draw a Line in the Sand and Take on the Wall Street Wrecking Crew?

We know Obama has good values, but we don't know if he has convictions.
 
 
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At the dawn of the progressive era early in the last century, muckrakers attacked the first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, for creating capitalism’s most ruthless monster. “The Octopus” was their nickname for Standard Oil, the trust that controlled nearly 90 percent of American oil. But even in that primordial phase of the industrial era, Rockefeller was mindful of his public image and eager to counter it. “His great brainstorm,” writes his biographer, Ron Chernow, “was undoubtedly his decision to dispense shiny souvenir dimes to adults and nickels to children as he moved about.” Who could hate an octopus tossing glittering coins?

It was hard not to think of Rockefeller’s old P.R. playbook while watching Goldman Sachs’s behavior when the Dow hit 10,000 last week. As leader of the Wall Street pack, Goldman declared surging profits, keeping it on track to dispense a record $23 billion in bonuses for 2009. But most Americans know all too well that only the intervention of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money saved Goldman from the dire fate of its less well-connected competitors. The growing ranks of under-and-unemployed Americans, meanwhile, are waiting with increasing desperation for a recovery of their own.

Goldman is this century’s octopus — almost literally so. The most-quoted sentence in financial journalism this year, by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, describes the company as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” That’s why Goldman’s chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, recycled Rockefeller’s stunt last week: The announcement of Goldman’s spectacular third-quarter earnings ($3.19 billion) was paired with the news that the company was donating $200 million to its own foundation, which promotes education. In Goldman dollars, that largess is roughly comparable to the nickels John D. handed out to children a century ago. At least those kids could spend the spare change on candy.

Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting crusade ultimately broke up Standard Oil. Though Goldman did outlast three of its four major rival firms during last fall’s meltdown, it is not a monopoly. And there is one other significant way that our 21st-century vampire squid differs from Rockefeller’s 20th-century octopus. Americans knew what oil was, and they understood how Standard Oil’s manipulations directly affected their pocketbooks. Even now many Americans don’t know what Goldman’s products are or how it makes its money. The less we know, the easier it is for reckless gambling to return to capitalism’s casino, and for Washington to look the other way as a new financial bubble inflates.

As Wall Street was celebrating last week, Congress was having a big week of its own, arousing itself to belatedly battle some of the corporate suspects that have helped drive America into its fiscal ditch. The big action was at the Senate Finance Committee, which finally produced a health care bill that, however gingerly, bids to reform industries that have feasted on the nation’s Rube Goldberg medical system. At least health care, like oil, is palpable, so we will be able to keep score of how reform fares — win, lose or draw. But the business of Wall Street, while also at center stage in a Congressional committee last week, is so esoteric that the public is understandably clueless as to what, if anything, the lawmakers were up to, if anyone even noticed at all.

The first stab at corrective legislation emerging from Barney Frank’s Financial Services Committee in the House is porous. While unregulated derivatives remain the biggest potential systemic threat to the world’s economy, Frank said that “the great majority” of businesses that use derivatives would not be covered under his committee’s much-amended bill. It’s also an open question whether the administration’s proposed consumer agency to protect Americans from mortgage and credit-card outrages will survive the banking lobby’s attempts to eviscerate it. As that bill stands now, more than 98 percent of America’s banks — mainly community banks, representing 20 percent of deposits — would be shielded from the new agency’s supervision.

 
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