Friday, May 2, 2014

Clinton's role in Wall Street's predatory criminality

Zeitgeist is one of those perfect German words because there is something almost spooky about what is fashionable and what is not.  Since "status emulation" is a central concept of Institutionalism, we tend to take fashion (political, social, cultural, etc) and aesthetics FAR more seriously than your typical economists.  In the traditional definition of the word, zeitgeist is a collective spirit driven by the sum of human experience.  The first time I encountered this definition, I was somewhat stunned because the defense included the assertion "you cannot actually change the zeitgeist."  I was so shocked I could only mumble, "every day folks go to work trying to change the zeitgeist—they work in advertising, religion, think tanks, PR, and the other forms of paid propaganda.  These jobs would not exist if someone didn't think these efforts are at least partially effective."

But the traditional definition has quite a bit of validity.  Not all PR works for a reason—it costs a LOT to actually change the zeitgeist but if you have to fight it, it does seem a bit supernatural.

So as neoliberalism wormed its way to respectability in the 1970s-90s, it was easy to attribute this sea-change in thought to changing fashion.  And so it was.  But in this case, this fashion shift was the end result of an elaborate set of lies that served the agenda of those who stood to benefit.  The plan was actually pretty simple—buy the opinions of some established news organ and stand back while the professional butt-kissers piled on.  Status emulation is powerful!

And now we see the evidence from a Clinton Library doc release that shows how how a small circle of advisors convinced Clinton that deregulation like repealing Glass-Steagal was wise.  My guess is that the process was remarkably easy—I mean how hard do you suppose it was to convince a natural libertine like Clinton that the elimination of rules was a good idea?  And I'll bet no one got on his schedule to explain to him why rules like Glass-Steagal were written in the first place.  And there was even a response for that—label the offending regulation "Depression-era" so as to make it sound especially archaic.

With Clinton's important deregulation, the wretched excess of 2000s financial scams were set in concrete.  No one goes through the trouble of eliminating rules if they don't have a plan to exploit the new opening.

Note: There are actual pictures of the offending documents in the original article—go visit if you need further proof.

Wall Street deregulation pushed by Clinton advisers, documents reveal

Previously restricted papers reveal attempts to rush president to support act, later blamed for deepening banking crisis

Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Saturday 19 April 2014

Wall Street deregulation, blamed for deepening the banking crisis, was aggressively pushed by advisers to Bill Clinton who have also been at the heart of current White House policy-making, according to newly disclosed documents from his presidential library.

The previously restricted papers reveal two separate attempts, in 1995 and 1997, to hurry Clinton into supporting a repeal of the Depression-era Glass Steagall Act and allow investment banks, insurers and retail banks to merge.

A Financial Services Modernization Act was passed by Congress in 1999, giving retrospective clearance to the 1998 merger of Citigroup and Travelers Group and unleashing a wave of Wall Street consolidation that was later blamed for forcing taxpayers to spend billions bailing out the enlarged banks after the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

The White House papers show only limited discussion of the risks of such deregulation, but include a private note which reveals that details of a deal with Citigroup to clear its merger in advance of the legislation were deleted from official documents, for fear of it leaking out.

“Please eat this paper after you have read this,” jokes the hand-written 1998 note addressed to Gene Sperling, then director of Clinton's National Economic Council.

Earlier, in February 1995, newly-appointed Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, his deputy Bo Cutter and senior advisers including John Podesta gave the president three days to decide whether to back a repeal of Glass-Steagall.

In what Cutter described as “an action forcing event”, he wrote to Clinton on 21 February, telling him Rubin wanted to announce the policy before it was raised by the House banking committee on 1 March.

“In order to position Secretary Rubin – rather than any of the regulators – as the Administration's chief spokesman on this issue, the Secretary intends to discuss the Administration's position at a speech which will be covered by the press in New York on 27 February,” wrote Cutter on 21 February.

“It is therefore necessary to have an agreed-upon Administration position by the end of the day on Friday, 24 February.”

Podesta, who was then staff secretary but went on to become Clinton's chief of staff, wrote a covering note telling the president that all his senior advisers backed the plan, although he noted the danger that “allowing banks to engage in riskier activities like securities or insurance could subject the deposit insurance fund to added risk”.

But Clinton's advisers repeatedly reassured him that the decision to let Wall Street dismantle regulatory barriers designed to protect the public after the Great Depression simply represented inevitable modernisation.

“The argument for reform is that the separation between banking and other financial services mandated by Glass-Steagall is out of date in a world where banks, securities firms and insurance companies offer similar products and where firms outside the US do not face such restrictions,” wrote Podesta.

Podesta currently works at the White House as special adviser to President Barack Obama. Sperling stood down as director of Obama's National Economic Council last month.

Along with Cutter, who worked on Obama's transition committee, all three men were close allies of Rubin, who spearheaded the deregulation of Wall Street before joining the board of Citigroup in 1999. In 2007, he briefly became its chairman.

The closeness of Obama's team to the deregulation policies of the late 1990s is well known and has been criticised by campaigners as a reason for the current administration's reluctance to institute more aggressive Wall Street reforms after the banking crash.

But the new documents cast fresh light on the way the White House was first ushered toward deregulation by the tight group of Rubin allies.

A similar apparent attempt to rush president Clinton's decision-making occurred later in the process, in 1997.

In a letter received by the president on 19 May, Clinton is again given just three days to decide whether to proceed with the deregulation agenda.

“The attached memorandum asks you to authorize Treasury to proceed to announce and submit their financial services modernization proposal,” writes Sperling.

“Secretary Rubin intends to introduce the proposal in a 21 May speech, and to testify before the House Banking Committee the first week of June.”

In his letter, Rubin reassures Clinton that the issue need not take up much of his attention.

“Should you approve our recommendation to move forward, the proposal would be a Treasury initiative, and would not require a significant time commitment from the White House,” writes the Treasury secretary.

“I and my staff will manage the process of advancing the proposal,” he adds.

The sense that the president need not concern himself with the detail is amplified by his own staff, who appear happy for him to be pushed along by the Treasury timetable.

In a covering note from staff secretary Todd Stern, Clinton is warned: “The attached memo is long, detailed and technical, but you can get the essentials by looking at the first four pages.”

Stern adds: “If you agree. Treasury will, tomorrow, put out some advance word on the Rubin speech.”

Throughout the documents, which are among 7,000 pages released by the Clinton library on Friday, there is little discussion of internal opposition to repealing Glass-Steagall, although some memos inadvertently touch on the risks that ultimately proved so expensive to the US taxpayer.

“Notwithstanding the pounding Treasury took today, there's still much to their position on the regulatory structure (which really depends on the proposition that we're not good at regulating complex financial (let alone non-financial) companies, but we're pretty good at walling off the bank to protect the taxpayers),” concludes Clinton adviser Ellen Seidman in one 1997 memo. more

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