The Bailouts and Democracy

(This post appeared as part of the Issues Now! series leading up to the America’s Future Now conference from the Campaign for America’s Future.)

I have questions about the bailouts and I can’t seem to get answers. This by itself means there are big problems with the bailouts and the rest of this effort to restore the economy. I am a citizen in a (supposed) democracy and I am not getting enough information to allow me to do my job. As a citizen I’m in charge of all of this, yet I don’t know where my money is going, how it is being used, what alternatives were considered, who is profiting, who is gaming the system, and I can’t find out.

Like the old Soviet Union, when the institutions that are supposed to provide information are not trusted – or are not there – rumors and alternate explanations (read: “conspiracy theories”) abound. And so it is with the national discussion of the bailouts. Ask anyone on the street about the bailouts, read almost any blog, op-ed page, letter to the editor: people do not understand why these particular corporations are so special that they should get this special access to our money after they got themselves into trouble, and no one is doing a good job of explaining to the public-at-large just what is going on. “Trust us” is not democracy.

Take a look at this short video clip of Representative Alan Grayson (D-Fla) asking the Federal Reserve Inspector General what she knows about the trillions that the Fed has put up and the IG saying she doesn’t know:

Q: “You’re the Inspector General … do you know who received that one trillion dollars plus…?”

A: “I do not know.”

And there are reports that the Congressional Oversight Panel headed by Elizabeth Warren is having trouble getting sufficient information from the Treasury Department. So as far as I can tell, no one is getting sufficient information and reporting back to us citizens what is being done in our name and with our money. And it is a lot of money. Right-wing radio and blogs are certainly taking full advantage of this information gap to stir up anger and trouble. As David Sirota wrote the other day,

According to Bloomberg News, the White House, the Congress and the Federal Reserve have committed almost $13 trillion to the financial industry in one bailout form or another. If even more resources continue to be devoted to bailing out the same financial con artists who got us into this economic mess, that means far less resources will be available to tackle all of the nation’s other challenges (health care, infrastructure, education, etc.). And when those challenges aren’t met, conservatives will have a set of failures to cite as a powerful rationale for their own political revival.

So let me ask a few of my questions:

Are the stress tests being gamed as rumored? If so, why? They used 8.9 percent unemployment as their “worst case” and, as Dean Baker wrote, “The unemployment rate hit 8.9 percent last week and it is undoubtedly going higher.”

Is the Public/Private Investment Partnership (PPIP) plan being gamed as rumored with big banks using bailout funds to trade toxic assets at inflated prices and again fraudulently boost their balance sheets (BBuBfBBs)? (The dual-alliteration test might be just as valid as a stress test that used a sure-to-be-topped unemployment number as its worst case.) But seriously, is someone looking into this and stopping it if true?

Is it true that, as rumored, individuals at AIG are offering sweet deals (backed by taxpayer dollars) in exchange for very-high-paying jobs down the line with the recipients of those deals? Again, is someone looking into this and stopping it if true?

Why was it essential that those particular corporations be bailed out to get credit flowing? Couldn’t other banks take over their lending subsidiaries or departments with government help? Instead we’re giving billions to already-too-big corporations followed by rumors that they are using the money to acquire other companies and get even bigger. Are we making too-big-to-fail corporations into too-bigger-to-fail corporations?

Why do Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others in the Obama administration appear (at least from the information I get) to think their employer is the financial sector instead of the People of the United States? For example, in the restructuring of GM they are allowing jobs to be outsourced. How does this match up with the idea that in our democracy those workers are their employer?

Along the same lines, why didn’t the legislation authorizing the bailouts prohibit the companies receiving taxpayer money from lobbying? Why didn’t it limit pay and bonuses at all levels to the amount earned by the President of the United States? Why did it have so many loopholes that allow these companies to game the system with our money? In other words, why does it seem like the people writing the legislation felt they worked for the banking industry instead of the people?

And here is a big question: Didn’t we go through something just like this with the S&L crisis not that long ago? What lessons did we learn from that? The causes of the S&L crisis were deregulation, “unsound real estate lending,” and connected insiders (with names like Neil Bush) gaming the system. I wrote about the connection between the S&L crisis and this one the other day,

People got really, really rich looting financial institutions, and then when the taxpayers came in to fix it connected insiders got really rich from that, too. … Valuable properties were sold to connected insiders for pennies on the dollar. Pretty much everyone was allowed to keep what they made from what we think of as bad practices.

So look at the results of the current crisis. A few got really rich by looting financial institutions, taxpayers on the hook to bail everyone out, and the cleanup looks like it involves connected insiders getting really rich. …

So maybe the lesson WAS learned. For example, we think Lehman was a failure? But a few people made millions, even hundreds of millions from those decisions. … And they were all allowed to keep the money.

So the lesson for US to learn is that this stuff works out really well for the people making the decisions. If we want these things to stop we need to get the money back … and put enough of them in jail. Otherwise the incentive structure guarantees this will happen over and over. It is set up that way.

Yes, these are a lot of questions.

And one last one: Do we want to “restore” our financial system, or change it? What we had didn’t work. In fact what we had demonstrated the most extreme example of “didn’t work” that any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. So why do we want to “restore” it? The words imply a wish to return to the way things were. Ryan Avent writes,

Many progressives want to use the actual process of crisis resolution to reshape the financial system, but this is like trying to install a sprinkler system while one’s home is on fire.

Ryan, this fire burned down the whole town. What I want is a complete investigation of how the fire started, who started it, why there wasn’t a sprinkler system, why the fire department wasn’t making them install a sprinkler system (and was someone paid off), and how much the fire department is spending on fighting the fire. And then I want complete accountability: who will go to jail for starting this fire and who will be fired because there was no sprinkler system. And when all that is out of the way I want new management at the fire department and a completely overhauled fire code that protects the public and never lets this happen again.

Shouldn’t we instead learn from what happened and make some fundamental changes to bring it more in line with our ideas about democracy and who is supposed to be in charge here? As I have been asking for years, who is our economy for anyway? Shouldn’t we see that too-big-to-fail is too big and limit by law the size of corporations – as well as limit the allowed percentage of ownership any person or entity can as they grow larger? Shouldn’t we realize that corporate money should stay in the corporation and not be allowed to influence our decision-making? Shouldn’t we all be asking more questions and getting answers?

If anything needs to be “restored” it is the understanding that We, the People are in charge here and have a right to all the information we want and need from our government and our elected officials. They work for us. Under our system We, the People are supposed to be telling the corporations what to do, not the other way around.