Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Seth Saith "Our World's Gone Amiss" Manifesto, Volume 1: Awaking to the Further Disunited State of Democracy Inaction as Wall Street Continues to Laugh All the Way to the Bank

Volume 1 (the first in a sporadic series)

Election Day 2010 didn't exactly go the way I would have liked--or for the most part, the way I voted, although in Illinois the existing ineffectual Democratic Governor Pat Quinn holds a slight lead over Bill Brady, who may have earned my vote if he wasn't so far right on social issues--but hewed pretty closely to what I expected.

I have long had an intrinsic preference for what the Democrats supposedly stand for (at least comparatively) and a strong distaste for the intolerance often espoused by Republicans and their mouthpieces. I also firmly believe that in large part "the mess we're in" is due to choices made between 2001-2008 and that the "Change" President Obama promised was never likely to manifest itself immediately.

But as someone who has been out of work for most of Obama's time in office and remains so as part of an official unemployment rate of 9.6% and a real unemployment rate--including individuals who have quit looking or are working part-time not as a preference--closer to 20%, I understand the rancor that resulted in the Republicans picking up at least 60 House seats to take control of it, as well as the GOP's considerable gains in the Senate and governorships.

While I remain skeptical of the policies Republicans might wish to enact and their priorities--which seem to begin and end with driving Obama out of office in 2012--in troubled times Americans often vote more to replace the incumbents than as affirmation of their challengers, and I'm sorry to say that I can't take much umbrage. It's a shame that a progressive and daring legislator like Wisconsin's Russ Feingold had to go down (to a first-time candidate nonetheless) and some bit of consolation that Tea Party miscalculations kept the GOP from overthrowing Harry Reid and taking control of the Senate. And whatever the reason or eventual result, it was interesting to see the GOP and its voters become more inclusive, with non-white Republicans winning several key races, including new Florida senator Marco Rubio.

But even with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, albeit with a fair amount of obstruction from the other side, President Obama--a man I greatly admire and who I still believe has sufficient vision and skill for the task at hand--has not in any readily apparent way made the country, or my life, significantly better. The economy remains in tatters, our foreign policy remains suspect and his major accomplishment, the health care bill, was far too watered down to really suit those of us who want universal coverage, seems to be despised by most of the country and is likely to be repealed or overhauled before it has much effect.

Other than clogging the streets of Skokie--and I'd imagine many other places--with seemingly unnecessary road construction for the past 8 months, I also haven't seen much effect from the stimulus package. And the Wall Street reform bill Obama signed into law in July seemingly has no real teeth, based on the opinions of those who know much more about it than I, including Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone.

In fact, beyond the likely truth that the new political power structure will cause even more legislative gridlock--and thus, few significant new bills will pass in the next 2 years--it is primarily because of Washington's ongoing bi-partisan kow-towing to Wall Street, despite the calamity it caused through intentional malfeasance, that I am pessimistic about the future for ordinary Americans.

According to the wonderfully insightful movie, Inside Job, written, produced and directed by a multi-millionaire named Charles Ferguson (his company created the website design software FrontPage before being sold to Microsoft), the top 1% of Americans have more net worth than the bottom 95% combined. And not only did the Wall Street banks--Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, etc.--and their accomplices, from subprime lenders like Countrywide to the insurance giant AIG, intentionally wreak havoc on the American financial system and cause "the mess we're in," their leaders and many employees continue to get exorbitantly wealthy off the same type of unethical maneuvering.

Like I imagine many of you, when Wall Street melted down in September 2008, required a bailout for its survival, put us in our ongoing recession and eventually cost many of us--including me--their jobs, I assumed that the collective "we" were to blame. Too many of us were buying homes and cars we couldn't afford and getting into debt over our heads.

But while anyone who bought a $500,000 home with household income under $40,000 and loads of bad credit to their name shouldn't absolve themselves of stupidity, the truth is that subprime mortgage lenders--such as Countrywide or New Century--purposely preyed on less affluent people and gave them mortgages they knew would be most likely be defaulted on.

As explained by Ferguson in Inside Job, in greater depth by Michael Lewis in his outstanding book, The Big Short, Rolling Stone's Taibbi in a string of deeply-researched articles such as this one about Goldman Sachs (his piece on how Wall Street made a mockery of the bailout is also essential reading and his new book Griftopia promises to be as well) and the rightfully acerbic Michael Moore in Capitalism: A Love Story...

Mortgage lenders purposely made bad loans because they didn't care if they ever got paid back.

Silly as this sounds, it's because the mortgages were sold to the investment banks (like Goldman Sachs, etc.) and packaged as subprime mortgage bonds, which were piled on top of each other into an investment product called a CDO (collateralized debt obligation), most of which were given AAA ratings by Moody's and S&P through a combination of collusion & stupidity, and sold to pension funds and other investors (or held by the banks themselves). As if this wasn't bad, or confusing enough, the investment banks also sold something called a Credit Default Swap (CDS) to anyone who wanted to put up a 2% bet--i.e. $2 million to get back $100 million--that any given CDO would go bad, which could happen if only 8% of the subprime mortgages defaulted.

As many of these adjustable rate mortgages (often requiring no money down and little or no documentation of income) featured a two-year low interest teaser rate that jumped after that term, you can see why there were so many defaults starting around 2007--and the situation got exponentially worse as home prices began to decrease. According to Wikipedia, subprime mortgages, which were more lucrative to lenders, especially when they didn't take the hit on defaults, rose to 18-21% of all originations between 2004-2006 from less than 10% in 2001-2003. By 2007, there were approximately $1.3 trillion in American subprime mortgages.

The investment banks actively facilitated the expansion of subprime lending in order to more economically comprise CDOs (towers of mortgage bonds) that would be fictitiously sold as AAA-rated investments, thanks to complicit ratings firms. And in casino parlance--which  seems quite apt--AIG started acting as the house on billions of dollars of Credit Default Swaps, including over $20 billion to Goldman Sachs, which, sold CDOs that it knew were crap to investors, while at the same time betting against them (see this video for more info). Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch took losses in the hundreds of billions on CDOs they owned (and consequently either went under or got sold off) and AIG went under--but was saved by the taxpayers at 100 cents to the dollar--because it couldn't pay off its "losing bets" to Goldman Sachs.

If the last three paragraphs seem impossible to understand, A) that's the way Wall Street wants it and B) if nothing else, you should at least see that the financial collapse involved a great deal of fraud and shenanigans, not just misfortune or consumer excess. 

And if it seems like Credit Default Swaps (CDS, one of the instruments known as "derivatives") are just gambling, so far removed from anything doing any good for society or even investments in companies that might be, well, that's why Ferguson, Taibbi, Moore and others all point to deregulation of the Financial Services industry--which began in 1981 when President Reagan made Donald Regan, the former head of Merrill Lynch, the Secretary of the Treasury--as the root cause of the catastrophic messes caused by the S&L scandals, junk bond era, tech stock boom/crash and subprime mortgage meltdown.

And Washington, even under Obama, is doing nothing to stop Wall Street from (still) running wild...and ruining America (and the rest of the world as well).

As I said above, there was a Wall Street Reform bill signed into law by President Obama in July. Seemingly this fulfills his campaign promise to curb Wall Street. But according to Taibbi and many others (1, 2, 3), after the bill was watered down by members of both parties--which along with key appointees in various administrations, including Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson, all with very direct ties to Wall Street, are both culpable for the country-crippling deregulations--it basically changes nothing in the way Wall Street does business.

In this piece, Ferguson goes even further in blaming Obama for failing to stunt the non-sensical, short-term risks by which Wall Street makes itself rich and for which the rest of us pay the price.

Anyway, for things to really change in America--and don't think this esoteric crap that happens on "Wall Street" doesn't directly impact all of us--something needs to be done. And no matter who's in charge, it doesn't appear that anything soon will be. Especially with 3,000 Wall Street lobbyists at work in Washington and billions of dollars in campaign contributions going to Republican and Democratic candidates.

So I might have preferred one fool, you might have preferred another. But let's not fool ourselves about who's really in power. And no, Rich Whitney, it's not that "Green" party.


Greg Boyd said...

I'm so depressed that Russ Feingold was voted out of office. He was arguably the best senator this country's ever had, and stood up on principle even when it wasn't popular (like when he was the only one to vote against the PATRIOT Act). He also was one of the few Dems who didn't run away from Obama's policies, but stood by them.

I'm not sure if voters in Wisconsin realize exactly what they've done. Shame.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the US is closer to an oligarchy than we may believe with a limited number of individuals picking those that can carry out their desires (an idea held by Rush Limbaugh, by the way). Thankfully and unfortunately, each vote is equal in weight regardless of whether the voter has a PhD. and can argue the pros and cons of each candidate's position, or if the voter has no idea what the issues are and votes party line 'because they're pro-union'. Voters can support a candidate on the hope they will deliver campaign promises, and when they do not they should 'vote the bums out!'. Although Russ Feingold displays a lot of chutzpah, his regressive policies can no longer be tolerated. However, I'm sure the 1% can use Feingold in another position down the road and we will see him again.