Financial Socialism by and for Wall Street Elites?

Many of us have seen 3-card Monte played on upturned garbage cans or wondered how Bernie (I don’t think he’ll mind me calling him Bernie) Madoff) could do what he did so well and for so long.  No doubt the denizens in Wall St (or London or wherever the markets are) occupy the top 2% of the bell curve (but I’m sure they would argue higher).

They are advantaged by nature to benefit from the “deal.”  Some deals are so complex that the dealers may eventually go to prison.  Some do, some don’t.  Some get bailed out because the fever of their leveraged bets can only be matched at the horse track when they know the horse is likely lame.

Were I to buy a car or a house in many states the known defects must be disclosed.  But looking over some of the blogs from the “good” times it was clear that many were just gambling that they would be in cash when the market crashed.  Many people knew that with capitalism it’s every man (or woman) for himself and I’m going to get mine – first.

But then, what the heck, the government’s not going to let anything bad happen.  Why that could provoke a depression worse than the Great One! These folks knew that they had insurance.  Not the kind that common folk buy, the free kind that comes when you threaten to pull the trigger on the world’s economy.

Then, after marshaling the investment advocate reserve corps to deal with allegations of reckless and irresponsible betting on outrageous odds and false paper, the top 2% are again pulling in multi-million dollar bonuses (it’s not cool, even embarrassing to say you make in excess of $500,000/yr).  A bonus makes it sound like you worked really hard and produced a lot.

And the people, the proud capitalists, who did this are still making the some money (ok the pr people told them to lop off a few zeros) with no one held accountable for the mess.  Someone was accountable with all the testosterone soaked hubris (chutpah) in the air.  As the article below suggests, the people who were supposed to be watching for abuses will soon be employed by those they were watching.  Meanwhile, our real national treasures: schools bridges, highways, research are neglected and those who will foot the bill whether it’s written in Chinese or another language – carlos

Financial Socialism by and for Wall Street Elites?

Les Leopold

More than 70 percent of Americans say big bonuses should be banned this year at Wall Street firms that took taxpayer bailouts, a Bloomberg National Poll shows. An additional one in six favors slapping a 50 percent tax on bonuses exceeding $400,000. Just 7 percent of U.S. adults say bonuses are an appropriate incentive reflecting Wall Street’s return to financial health.

A large majority also want to tax Wall Street profits to reduce the federal budget deficit. A levy on financial services firms is the top choice among more than a dozen deficit-cutting options presented to respondents. Bloomberg

As bonus season arrives, the gap between the American people and Wall Street couldn’t be wider. And where is Washington in this great divide? Don’t ask.

At a moment when Americans desperately want jobs on Main Street and expect Wall Street to pay its fair share, Washington officials are hard at work — seeking jobs for themselves on Wall Street. (Congratulations, Peter Orszag, on parlaying your position as Obama’s OMB director into a top job at CitiGroup, the bank that received hundreds of billions in taxpayer bailouts and guarantees on your watch!)

Most Americans rightly sense that our mixed free-enterprise economy, which once built a broad middle class, has devolved into a system of financial socialism by and for elites. The public wants and deserves answers to these basic questions:

1. Why do people in the financial sector make so much more money than the rest of us? Mainstream economists claim that your income reflects the economic value you produce — at least in free and open markets. But are proprietary traders, for example, really 100 times more valuable than neurosurgeons? In the UK, some economists say no: The British New Economics Foundation calculates that “While collecting salaries of between £500,000 and £10 million, leading City bankers destroy £7 of social value for every pound in value they generate.”

Let’s try a back-of-the envelope calculation of Wall Street’s net social value. Compare their bonuses and profits for roughly the last five years (about $500 billion) with the economic losses produced in the financial crisis the bankers caused (about $4 trillion in value destroyed, not counting the ongoing travails of the 22 million people who haven’t yet been able to find a full-time job). For every dollar “earned” on Wall Street, about 8 dollars were destroyed. (In case you’re suffering from financial amnesia and forgot how the financial sector single-handedly caused the economic crisis, please see The Looting of America. Chapter One can be found gratis on Alternet.com.)

There’s plenty of room for argument about this kind of calculation. But even Wall Street wizards would have trouble defending the billions they’ve acquired by profiting from a bubble that blew up the economy. What’s the real value of junk CDOs that were rated AAA and then sold for enormous profits before they blew up? We could make a strong case that those who profited from such bubble investments – like the people who sold synthetic CDOs to Wisconsin school districts — should pay back their fraudulent profits. (In fact, the school districts have filed a lawsuit toward that end.)

2. Do current profits of financial firms come from tax-payer bailouts?
The old free-market mantra was that you could make as much as you wanted, so long as you were willing to accept all the risks that went with it. Joseph Schumpeter, a great defender of capitalism during the 1940s when much of the world was turning towards socialism, called the process of winning and losing “creative destruction.” In his vision of capitalism, the best and the brightest staked everything in their quest for success, and only the true innovators survived. Inefficient enterprises would be left by the wayside.

So… are the survivors of the economic collapse like CitiGroup, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, receiving their just rewards?

Actually, it sounds a bit quaint these days to suggest that the rich must actually suffer the consequences of failure. These top financial institutions did not have to pay for their reckless gambling and gaming because they were deemed to big too fail, and so were bailed out. Goldman Sachs, for example, made a very bad bet when it purchased $13 billion of financial “insurance” from AIG to cover its toxic assets. AIG, due to its own enormously bad business decisions, could not pay up and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Had it gone under, as Schumpeter probably would have urged, Goldman Sachs would have received pennies on the dollar for its bad gamble, and might have gone broke. Instead, AIG was bailed out by taxpayers and Goldman Sachs got 100 cents on the dollar. It gambled, lost, and instead of suffering the consequences, was made whole by the government. And now Goldman Sachs execs are hauling in tens of millions in bonuses (disguised as stock options, even as its profits slip a bit from astronomical highs.)

Clearly, the “free and open” market did not determine who should be spared “creative destruction.” Instead, CitiGroup, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase et al were saved because of their deep political connections. These companies would be kaput were it not for taxpayer bailouts, hastily contrived loans, and all kinds of market guarantees from their friends at the Fed. Schumpeter would have recognized this scheme in a flash: It’s precisely the kind of crony socialism that he detested, only this time the game was was designed by and for financial elites in the world’s largest capitalist economy. (Please don’t compare the Wall Street rescues to the GM and Chrysler bailouts. Wall Street received ten times as much and will pay themselves a hundred times more than the top auto-executives. And the auto industry didn’t topple the US economy and send millions to the unemployment lines.)

3. But since Wall Street is paying us back, why shouldn’t they go back to earning whatever they can? Let’s follow through on that logic. Let’s say you raid your husband’s pension fund for $100,000 and take the bus to Vegas, naively hoping to triple your money. As luck would have it, you lose it all. Desperate, you manage to borrow another two million from a rich friend (Wall Street calls it “leverage”) — and then you really load up on your bets. Tragically, you lose that too. I hate to tell you this, but you’re in big trouble now. Don’t expect the government to come around and offer to cover your losses with taxpayer bailouts so you can keep on gambling till the lights go out, and then, if you win, pay back the government. That is, unless you’re too big to fail — say, a very large, well-connected investment bank. In that case, party on!

It’s true, Wall Street has paid us back for much of the bailout money we gave them. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, having been rewarded for their bad behavior, they’re now back at the casino tables, playing many of the same games that took down the economy in the first place. This time there are even fewer players who are now way too big to fail. And fewer players means less competition — hence the rise in banking “fees,” especially for the average consumer.

4. Where does all their wealth come from? There are only two possible sources for all the money the financial sector is spewing: The bankers are either creating new wealth or they’re siphoning off wealth from the rest of us. Hedge fund honchos like to boast about how they weren’t bailed out and therefore are entitled to their enormous hauls. (The top 10 in 2009 earned an average of $900,000 an HOUR. The top 25 earned as much as 658,000 entry level teachers.)

Financial socialism for elites has failed and will fail again, plunging millions of Americans into joblessness and sinking our nation deeply into debt. Big government has many faults, of course. But the American people, I believe, can tell the difference between public utilities that aim to serve the economy and a private oligopoly that only serves a tiny elite. Ironically, those who run the government don’t want government to end financial socialism (maybe because of financial industry campaign contributions–or because of Wall Street’s inviting revolving door). It may take another crash before Washington is willing to listen.

More on Capitalistic Socialism…

Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street’s Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009. He is currently working on a new book, How to Earn $900,000 an Hour: The Rise of Wall Street Billionaires and the One-sided Class War, (hopefully to be published in 2011).

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About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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