The Absurd Zombie Lie About the Economy Right-Wingers Desperately Cling To -- And Why It's Totally Wrong
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Wall Street turned a few million home-loans into what Warren Buffet called "economic weapons of mass destruction," cratered the global economy and then, when the bubble burst, turned around and insisted on a massive bailout courtesy of the American tax-payer.
That rightly infuriated most Americans, but it has nonetheless become something of an article of faith among conservatives that Wall Street bears little blame for the Great Recession. The dominant narrative on the right today is that "big government" is ultimately responsible for the crash. In the words of one of Andrew Breitbart's bloggers, Democratic lawmakers like Barney Frank and Chris Dodd “brought down the banking industry by forcing banks to give loans to people who couldn’t afford them.”
That such a ludicrous claim could gain such wide traction is a testament to the intellectual debasement of modern conservative discourse. No bank was ever “forced” – or coerced or incentivized by the government in any way – to make a bad loan.
But the claim falls apart even before one digs into the particulars, for the simple reason that people's mortgages didn't bring down the banking system in the first place.
The entire subprime mortgage market was worth only $1.4 trillion in the fall of 2007 , and that includes loans that were up-to-date. As former Goldman Sachs trader Nomi Prins noted in her book, It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses, and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street, the federal government could have bought up every single residential mortgage in the country – good, bad and in between – and it would have cost a trillion less than the bailouts.
Short of that, notes Prins, if the crisis were really about people buying McMansions that they couldn't afford, “we could have solved it much more cheaply in a couple of days in late 2008, by simply providing borrowers with additional capital to reduce their loan principals. It would have cost about 3 percent of what the entire bailout wound up costing, with comparatively similar risk.”
What brought down the global economy was as much as $140 trillion worth of financial gimmickery built on top of the mortgage industry. It was the alphabet soup of the credit meltdown – the CDOs, default swaps and other derivitaves that made less than a trillion dollars of foreclosed loans into an economic weapon of mass destruction that would cost the American economy alone $14 trillion in lost wealth.
A fair criticism of the government's role is that it didn't “meddle” in the free market sufficiently to protect borrowers, investors and the public – that $140 trillion house of cards was built in an environment created by decades of deregulation. But that situation is also the fault of Wall Street rather than an indication of the perfidy of "big government." It was bought at great cost by the banking lobby (and as powerful chairs of congressional banking committees, the right's bogeymen, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, are two of the financial industry's top recipients).
One could argue that the meltdown began with a chance meeting in 1997 in a line for coffee at Bank of America's Chicago headquarters. According to the Financial Times' Gillian Tett, a chance encounter brought together people working in BofA's derivatives group with another team that was packaging mortgages into securities. From that meeting, as Tett wrote, “a new game was born: bankers began to use subprime loans to create these bundles of loan default risk, now called collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) on an explosively large scale.”