Wall Street greed refuses to die: How lobbyists & dark-money groups are exposing us to another disaster

A recent paper from a rightwing advocacy group makes clear just how desperate the 1 percent is to get its way

Published May 12, 2015 9:11PM (EDT)

  (Universal/<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-606058p1.html'>Battrick</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Universal/Battrick via Shutterstock/Salon)

Last week, a paper was published by the right wing advocacy group American Action Forum (AAF). It was more or less a speculative hit piece on the Dodd-Frank financial reform, and a small part of the ongoing attack from Wall Street to dismantle the already weak regulatory apparatus ushered in by the law. Before getting into the papers claim, however, it is important to look at just who the AAF and its affiliates are.

Though AAF is a 501(c)(3), its sister organization, American Action Network, is a 501(c)(4), also known as a “dark money” group, because it does not have to disclose donors to the public. These tax exempt non-profits are dedicated to the ambiguous goal of promoting “social welfare,” or, in other words, promoting agendas with anonymous funding. They are allowed to participate in political campaigns and elections, and in 2012, they spent more than $310 million, up from $69 million in 2008. These shadowy organizations are also overwhelmingly conservative, though liberal spending has grown since 2010 as well.

American Action Network was founded by Fred Malek, a former Nixon aide and Wall Street investor worth somewhere around $200 to $300 million. Though AAN does not disclose its donors, the Center for Responsive Politics has identified some donors through IRS filings. These include groups like Karl Roves’ American Crossroads, the Koch-funded Donors Trust, and various pharmaceutical and oil and gas associations.

Now, the big claim made by the AAF paper, and then showcased by the right-wing media, is that Dodd-Frank regulations cost our Gross Domestic Product around $895 billion in growth, or $3,346 per working age person, over the next 10 years. However, as David Dayen has noted in the Fiscal Times, even the author of the paper, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, seems weary of the claim.

Dayen writes:

“Clearly, such a computation is subject to large uncertainties, but the order of magnitude is instructive,” Holtz-Eakin writes, essentially admitting that the $895 billion number doesn’t necessarily correspond with reality, but has importance because it’s, well, big.

Actually, the number is not that big. Using a 10-year period magnifies the raw dollar amount. U.S. annual GDP in 2014 was $17.4 trillion. An $895 billion cost over 10 years amounts to 0.059 percentage points annually, per the AAF numbers. “It doesn’t change the growth rate dramatically — it’s not even a percentage point,” Holtz-Eakin acknowledged to The Wall Street Journal.

None of this will not stop opponents of Dodd-Frank from trotting out the $895 billion figure as a calamitous fact. It is a classic propaganda piece with the dangerous goal of gutting reform, and will no doubt be thrown around by politicians over the next year to convince the voters that financial regulation has cost them thousands of dollars.

One would have thought, back in 2009, as our economy plummeted into the worst recession since the Great Depression, that the age of unregulated finance and lax government oversight was finished. The previous 20 years had been a great social experiment of financial deregulation, allowing the infinitely complex derivatives market to go unregulated. Both Republicans and Democrats (for the most part) had been convinced that regulations were antiquated, and that the 21st century market was different from the past -- safe and stable. It was, after all, Bill Clinton who signed the Gramm-Leach-Billey Act into law, and his top economic advisors, Lawrence Summers and Robert Rubin, who made sure the over-the-counter derivatives market remained untouched by regulators.

This philosophy proved to be disastrously wrong, and the unregulated derivatives market, which was supposed to limit risk by spreading it around, ended up simply exasperating risk and bringing the global economy to its knees. But it would naive to think big banks would simply concede -- after all, there was a lot of money made before the crash, and if another crash were to occur, it seems inevitable that another round of bailouts would come.

The problem with modern financial regulation is that it is infinitely complex, and it is easy to speculate about what it has or has not accomplished. Just as people with different political persuasions speculate about what would have happened if the government hadn’t bailed out the banks or passed TARP, people can speculate about whether Dodd-Frank has cost our GDP billions of dollars or whether it went far enough to prevent another economic crisis. Unfortunately, we only live in one reality, and cannot test out completely different policies at the same time.

But what we can do is look at history, and no honest observer can view the results of the past 30 years and the crisis that followed without questioning their previously held notions. As Martin Wolf writes in his new book, “The Shifts and the Shocks”:

“Today, then, the threats to liberal democracy, as I define it, come not from communism, socialism, labour militancy, soaring inflation, or a collapse in business profitability, as was the case in the 1970’s, but from financial and economic instability, high unemployment, and soaring inequality. The balance needs to be shifted again...The financially driven capitalism that emerged after the market-oriented counter-revolution has proved too much of a good thing. That is what I have learned from this crisis.”

The so-called "market-oriented counter-revolution," or what is better known as neoliberalism, has proven to be immensely unstable. The unregulated financial system resulted in calamity, and no sane person can truly propose ever going back to it. (Unless, of course, they are from the big banks or have refused to wake up from their dogmatic slumber.)

Late last year, the big banks proved that they have not given up, and will do whatever they can to return to the good old days. After being all but declared dead, a bill that had been written by Citigroup lobbyists was snuck into the controversial "Cromnibus" funding bill passed by Congress, giving Obama and liberals no choice but to pass this gift for the big banks, or shutdown the government. This bill removed a part of Dodd-Frank that had banned banks from using FDIC insured deposits for derivative trading -- yes, the same kind of trading that helped nearly bring down our economy.

So, after five years, the big banks are already hard at work trying to dismantle regulations that were put in place to prevent irresponsible banking and financial destruction. And “studies” like the one released by the  American Action Forum, who for all we know is being funded by the big banks themselves, will help them achieve this goal. Who knows, maybe it will take another, even more disastrous economic collapse to really change the system. After all, many commentators feel Dodd-Frank did not go nearly far enough, and the banks are already beginning to pick away at it.

Edmund Burke once said “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” But we do know history, we all lived through it! It was less than a decade ago. But maybe Kurt Vonnegut was right when he said “we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. Thats what it is to be alive.” In Washington, it seems the past will be repeated endlessly, as long as there’s money involved.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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Deregulation Dodd-frank Finance Wall Street