Fix the economy? Curb corporate America

Part 3: Simon Johnson and John Talbott wrap up their talk on the real causes of the economic meltdown

Topics: U.S. Economy

Fix the economy? Curb corporate America

John R. Talbott is a former investment banker with Goldman Sachs and the author of  “The 86 Biggest Lies on Wall Street,” “Contagion,” “Obamanomics,” and “The Coming Crash in the Housing Market.”

Simon Johnson, the former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is the co-founder of the Baseline Scenario, a Web site tracking the ongoing financial crisis. He is one of the most visible public commentators on the ongoing financial crisis and its causes.

From June to July of 2009, Talbott and Johnson held an e-mail conversation on the following topic:

“The economic crisis: Who caused it? Was it preventable? Was criminal activity involved in bringing it about? And is it over?”

The exchange below is the last of three sets of e-mails. The first pair was published Wednesday, and the second pair appeared Thursday.

From: John Talbott

To: Simon Johnson

Subject: Taking Back the Country

Simon,

I think you and I and most economists suffer from an antiquated belief that if we can just figure out exactly what went wrong, policymakers will beat a path to our door to ask our help in enacting necessary reforms. Unfortunately, the world no longer works that way. Our corrupted government, our criminal businesses and banking institutions, lobbyists, special interests, and the corporate controlled media are not interested in fixing this problem. They are making trillions of dollars through a vast scheme that transfers wealth from ordinary American taxpayers and consumers to their corrupt coffers. You are right that if big business thought about it, they should support efforts at restricting lobbying so that growth-oriented government policies could be implemented without the influence of corrupting special interests. But each lobbying corporation is also its own special interest, and so such internal reform is impossible.

The million-dollar question is: Why haven’t ordinary Americans reacted more passionately and angrily in taking real action to end this systemic abuse? A decade ago, I wrote my first book on the corrupting influence of big business lobbying on our government and concluded at the time that average Americans would not focus on the issue until they had suffered real pain. I concluded that you can’t defuse a bomb in America until after it has gone off.

But now the bomb has exploded. Forty million Americans are unemployed, millions have lost their homes, and most have taken a very substantial hit to their incomes, retirement savings and wealth. Why aren’t Americans in the streets protesting this corrupt, enormously damaging criminal enterprise? I have traveled enough around America to realize that even though the current situation is enormously complex and not all Americans can describe exactly how the CDO market works, almost without exception every American can relate to you his frustration with how corrupt this government is and how unjust corporate lobbying and special influence in Washington has become. They get it. As a matter of fact, some of my high school-educated friends from my home state of Kentucky understand it a lot better than my Harvard-educated friends from Wall Street.

So I don’t think the current challenge is figuring out exactly what caused the crisis. Focusing on what caused this episode will lead to narrow regulatory reform that reminds me that we all now take off our shoes at airports because one crazy fellow had the idea of putting a bomb in his heel. So while reform is needed in subprime mortgages, securitization, derivatives, and even in the magnitude of our financial institutions, none of these get at the fundamental problem: The people of this country are no longer making the rules by which they wish to live. If subprime mortgages hadn’t blown up, some other area of highly leveraged bank lending would have eventually imploded. Even if the banking industry hadn’t crashed, some other sector of the corrupt business/government criminal enterprise would have. Maybe the ice shelf of Greenland would have collapsed into the North Atlantic, maybe we would have run out of oil, maybe Microsoft’s monopoly position in operating systems would have led to a worldwide computer virus shutdown, maybe poor consumer safety standards with China would have led to a global disease epidemic. The point is that when corporations make the rules, the results are not always good for the inhabitants of the planet.

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So we don’t have to decide today exactly what the reforms will be — we just need to get corporate America out of our government so that the people can deliberate and make these reform decisions themselves without undue influence from bankers and corporations.

But there are two huge impediments to accomplishing this. This is not a traditional economics problem, it is an organizing problem or a collective action problem. People know the system is rigged and broken and unjust, but they feel as if there is very little that any one of them can do to effect much change. The organizing task is further complicated by the fact that our media, including television networks, cable TV, radio, newspapers, and magazine and book publishing, are almost all sponsored, owned and controlled by big corporations. The only hope is the Internet, over which big business has tried but to date failed to successfully exert its dominance. The Internet will prove to be both a source of unbiased news and information as well as the communication tool concerned citizens can utilize to fight back against big government, big business and big media.

What has to happen to get this movement started? First, I think people need to see that there is a channel being constructed that has the potential to be effective in directing their anger into real positive reform and change. I am in the process of beginning just such an organization and encourage people who are interested in fighting back against the system and against corporate lobbyists and special interests to contact me at my e-mail address, johntalbs (at) hotmail (dot) com.

Next, people have to believe that if they invest their time in such an effort they have the potential of winning. In this case, this is rather straightforward and easy to explain. If we are successful in organizing 5 million to 10 million Americans who want to see real change about how business is conducted in Washington, then by definition, we will have not only substantial political and voting power, but more important, the beginnings of a real consumer movement that could easily boycott the products and services of the worst corporate lobbyers in our government. 

And this is where the magic of the Internet comes in. No one person could organize a 10 million person database in his lifetime. But Obama was able to accomplish it in less than two years. How? We don’t have his money. Instead, we create our own Ponzi scheme. We create the ultimate chain letter. I e-mail 30 of my friends who each e-mail 30 of their friends and so on and so on. If only four cycles of people pass on the info we end up contacting 25 million Americans. We ask people to give us their e-mails and then contact them when we want to boycott a new offender.

It is time for Americans to realize that things are not going to improve until they get involved. It will take time. But the economy is not going to improve until we straighten out our corrupt system. Do you have anything more important that you are working on than this? The survival of liberal democratic society in the world.

Thanks for a great exchange of ideas. And best of luck in your future research and work.

John 

From: Simon Johnson

To: John Talbott

Subject: Re: Taking Back the Country

John:

I admire your energy and focus in trying to mobilize a broader cross section of people against the big banks in particular and the way our political-financial system operates in general. I’m sure this is worthwhile and not at all a waste of time. Any efforts you or others put into educating people — or enabling people to better educate themselves — will surely pay off over time.

However, my sense of the political cycle around these issues is perhaps a bit different from yours. On the first round — the crisis, immediate policy response and first-round “reform” efforts — the big bankers have definitely won.

You were right when you argued way back that it would take a crisis before anyone really understood that we have a problem. But even so, most people still do not fully understand what has happened to them over the past 12 months — and why their future taxes will be so much higher. I spend quite a lot of time talking to relatively well-informed people. After an hour or so of intense discussion and argument, I would say that most people see much more clearly just what the big banks got away with, although they do not necessarily agree with the idea of stricter regulatory controls on those banks. Left to their own devices, or just relying on the usual sources, I’m not sure how clear any of this is to most people.

And I worry that e-mailing friends doesn’t necessarily engage people at the necessary level. You need repeated reinforcement of the key themes — and a lot of back and forth with people you trust — to really change minds on something this big. Or, as you say, you need to see it again and again, and perhaps you need to worry about the consequences for your own well-being.

If the big banks could just lie low for a while, I honestly think they would get away with everything — the backlash would fade, and we’d be setting ourselves up for another massive crisis down the road.

Fortunately (in a sense), the banks cannot back off from their most egregious behavior. Perhaps this is in their DNA; definitely it is in their organizational culture and how they see the world — the people who run the biggest financial institutions really think they are the masters of the universe and are proceeding on that basis.

Their profits, their wages, their bonuses, and their behavior have begun to antagonize people greatly. Already, some of my contacts who are close to the administration wince at the latest news from the financial sector, be it the bonuses that were paid last year to senior people who oversaw major mistakes (some of whom are now rewarded with senior policy roles!) or the blatant bragging about political influence that some CEOs are now making public.

And even if some sensible people at these banks would like to rein in employee compensation to more moderate and reasonable levels, they have a problem. If you lower the wages for your people, another bank — perhaps one based in Europe — will hire them away with a crazy package. The rat race, across companies and between people, means that this can only be curtailed through regulation. But the survivor banks are so strong politically that they will defeat all meaningful regulation for compensation.

This very success makes them more vulnerable to further criticism and backlash.

I’m not saying that the banks will simply commit political suicide. Nothing is ever so simple. But they will likely undermine themselves with Congress and eventually even with the administration. The midterm elections in 2010 and the presidential election in 2012 could well be very much about restricting the power of the big banks.

American democracy does not get on well with overweening unelected individuals who pretend to great power. Andrew Jackson saw off Nicolas Biddle in the 1830s. Teddy Roosevelt stood up to — and eventually towered over — even J.P. Morgan at the beginning of the 20th century. And FDR remade everything in the 1930s.

As I said before, I’m optimistic that President Obama can do the same. The challenge to democracy is palpable and growing. The fact that two — and only two — big banks came through the crisis unscathed is a perfect symbol of the problem. In the past, part of the myth of Wall Street was that it was competitive, that many could enter the industry, and that its political power was not too concentrated. This myth, among many, has now exploded.

We see the power for what it is. Mainstream media increasingly picks up the story line. And still the big banks cannot step back and curtail their most troubling activities.

Keep explaining and let the big banks provide the supportive evidence you need.

Best wishes,

Simon 

Simon Johnson is the former chief economist of the IMF and is the cofounder of BaselineScenario.com, which reports daily on the ongoing financial crisis.

John R. Talbott is the author of "Obamanomics" and "The 86 Biggest Lies on Wall Street."

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