Saturday, June 27, 2009

Under the Rug

Mostly I like what Fareed Zakaria says and how he goes about saying it, but in this case I think Taibbi has it right.

Describing the misdeeds of Wall Street in the last decade by saying “few people acted… nobly” is sort of like saying that Stalin was “not always sociable” or O.J. Simpson was “not always committed to preserving life.” I mean, talk about a freaking understatement. Forgetting entirely the other insane lies in this passage (my favorite being the one about bureuacrats not taking cash for favors — I guess he means except for Bob Rubin taking $130 million or whatever from Citi after pushing through that merger), that “not so noble” bit is where Zakaria earns his money.

Because if you get into the actual gory details of what went on in those years, there’s just no way you come out of that story not wanting to see every banker on Wall Street strung up by his testicles. The crimes of this era were monstrous thieveries, committed against ordinary people in a highly systematic and organized fashion with the aid and compliance of a bought-off government, and the only way you can not perceive what happened as a profound indictment of capitalism is if you blow off the specifics entirely and try to hide the details in vague, airy words like “irresponsibility” and “excesses.”

Because the specifics matter. It’s one thing to say that Citi wasted some of the money taxpayers sent its way via the bailout; it’s another thing to say Citi wasted some of the taxpayers’ money by upholstering the pillows on the private jet Sandy Weill took to Mexico over Christmas vacation with Hermes scarves. It’s one thing to say Wall Street bankers felt pressure to chase profits; it’s another thing to say they achieved those profits by systematically robbing a whole generation of pensioners and working-class homeowners, under the noses of the politicians they bought with tens of millions in campaign contributions.

Zakaria works hard to tell the crisis story minus these outrageous details. Then he goes on to argue that, basically, nothing should be done.

This is exactly it, but I'll go out on a limb and specualte that it has less to do with partisan politics or intellectual laziness than most critics might assume. Recall that Zakaria was consistently scathing in his critiques of the Cheney administration, particularly in their inept foreign policy, which is Zakaria's specialty. Economically he's as in the tank for globalization as one could imagine, and rarely wavers from that path.

So the problem here is twofold: one, that as much as Zakaria loathed the machinations of the neocons, he acknowledges and appreciates the normalizing influence of the Obama team, even if most of the promised changes have been little more than rhetorical; two, if globalization is to continue, then the economy has to straighten itself out ASAP. In this he unsurprisingly echoes the stance of the Obama economic policy thus far.

One of the qualities I appreciated about Obama throughout the campaign was his ability to maintain a calm and collected demeanor, no matter what manner of smears and calumnies were thrown his way. It takes an inner strength to deal with self-styled clowns such as Tom Coburn or Jim DeMint, or constantly off-the-rez DINOs such as Ben Nelson or Mary Landrieu, and not just tell them all to go fuck themselves. Such a quality, people assumed, would be more well-suited to dealing with the tinpot assholes of the world than the ignorant bluster of Fredo, who famously could not be relied on to know the difference between Switzerland and Sweden half the time.

But in the economic arena, we are seeing the downside of that quality. It has been official government policy -- and thus, that of the corporate media -- to characterize the damage done to the economy as a series of "mistakes", presumably made in good faith by well-meaning people. Consistently these economic woes have been portrayed as some unforeseeable doom that befell us while everyone was just working hard and playing by the rules.

Folks, that is just a flat-out fucking lie, and we all know it. The financial spreadsheet wizards knew exactly what they were doing, knew what the risks were, and went ahead and pushed forward with the aid and complaisance of politicians and media monkeys, because they knew there was no disincentive to failure. They knew that no matter how badly they screwed that pooch, everyone else and their grandkids would pay for it. I couldn't care less that some of these fuckers lost their jobs; they weren't any good at them in the first place, and they're goddamned lucky they're not in jail.

This was theft, pure and simple, robbery, larceny on an impossibly grand scale. There was a brief spasm of manufactured catharsis, as people railed against executive bonuses which were unconscionable in good times, unforgivable in bad. Obama promised to reel those bonuses in then promptly reneged on that, larding his econ advisory team with ex-Goldman Sachs weasels and financial lobbyists, negating yet other campaign promises about transparency and lobbying.

It's not a mistake or a coincidence that Taibbi is about the only one who's bothered digging into this massive story, while everyone else is busy crying over people who stopped having any real cultural impact a quarter-century ago, or chasing sanctimonous bible-thumping politicians who get caught with their pants down. You and your children and your grandchildren have been stolen from, and nobody is doing a thing about it. That seems like a big story that everyone has a stake in. Why do you think your official media have chosen instead to follow each other's tweets and sniff their own asses?

One thing about a guy like Zakaria is that his rhetorical blandness actually excuses him somewhat from accusations of inappropriate partisanship or intellectual dishonesty. He's more of the pragmatist/realist type, understands that the alternative is infinitely worse, realizes that Obama will continue to forget about the change he promised and mandated, and push through more of the same, rebranded and retooled but fundamentally identical.

The bigger problem is that that sweeps away lingering, troubling questions about the economy, and the future of globalization. If we acknowledge that the economic slump is a correction, because its fundamentals had been hopelessly undermined, then we intuitively understand that priming the pump and going back to what we were doing before is just going to lead to another, probably greater, series of cascading disaster scenarios.

As for globalization, while it makes sense on paper, the fact of the matter is that the logical result of it means that billions of Chinese and Indians will utterly rape the planet in order to bring their standard of living up to ours, and/or deal with enormous, seething underclasses. Americans are but 5% of the world's population and look what we've done to get what we've got; globalization seems to avoid taking into account what the world would look like if the other 95% followed suit. That's not economic imperialism; that's just reality. Already China has been decimating the forests in the Russian Far East to keep up with our and their own demands, causing enormous dust storms and environmental consequences, oblivious to the future ramifications. It's only going to get worse.

The fact that we would rather let ourselves be robbed blind and laughed at to our faces, than simply dial it down a couple of notches and start working toward leaving future generations something better than an unholy mess, is simply mind-boggling.

1 comment:

Joe Blow said...