Saturday, January 3, 2009

Exposing the "Ownership Society" Bringing on the Wall Street Collapse

The uproar at The Post was over a weekend confab that saw the Federal Reserve guarantee upwards of $300 billion of taxpayer money to bail out Citigroup for the second time in a month and a half. Of that amount, $20 billion was for a paltry equity stake for taxpayers when the whole company could have been bought for $20.5 billion at the prior Friday’s closing price, and that was $4.5 billion less than taxpayers had dumped into the company in October. (It’s not a good omen that the man who helped put this deal together, Tim Geithner, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, has been selected by President-elect Barack Obama to be the new U.S. Treasury Secretary; neither is it promising that Robert Rubin was standing at the elbow of the President-elect in his first press conference, signaling he’s a key advisor.)
If you're even a little bit like I am, you probably believe that we exist today in an increasingly unhealthy economic/financial milieu populated by billionaires, whose very ownership of so much capital and its accompanying influence, has changed the equation formerly operating in U.S. society that was responsible for the prosperity accruing to the middle class of what had been seen up to the late 1970's as a free and just society worthy of emulation by other countries. Here's a partial explanation of how we came to this pretty pass. I've included more of other people's essays than I usually do, but I find the history included particularly compelling in its entirety (click on the links to read from the source). It's a story you probably learned as gospel early in your schooling as you were told again and again in the most serious tones that yes, Virginia, the system is based on trust: trust in your friendly neighbors downtown at the Citizen's Bank, and in the U.S. government's bulwark of conservative values, Wall Street (who would never cheat you or even treat you badly because the whole system, without the necessary trust and respect for the customer, would come crashing down, and that would do no one any good (emphasis marks and some editing was inserted - Ed.)):
It was called “fractional reserve” lending because the gold held in reserve was a mere fraction of the banknotes it supported. The scheme worked as long as only a few people came for their gold at one time; but investors would periodically get suspicious and all demand their gold back at once. There would then be a run on the bank and it would have to close its doors. This cycle of booms and busts went on throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in a particularly bad bank panic in 1907. The public became convinced that the country needed a central banking system to stop future panics, overcoming strong congressional opposition to any bill allowing the nation’s money to be issued by a private central bank controlled by Wall Street. The Federal Reserve Act creating such a “bankers’ bank” was passed in 1913. Robert Owens, a co-author of the Act, later testified before Congress that the banking industry had conspired to create a series of financial panics in order to rouse the people to demand “reforms” that served the interests of the financiers. Despite this powerful official backstop, however, the greatest bank run in history occurred only twenty years later, in 1933. President Roosevelt then took the dollar off the gold standard domestically, and Federal Reserve officials resolved to prevent further bank runs after that by flooding the banking system with “liquidity” (money created as debt to banks) whenever the banking Ponzi scheme came up short. “Too Big to Fail” - The Government Provides the Ultimate Backstop When these steps too proved insufficient to keep the banking scheme going, the government itself stepped up to the plate, providing bailout money directly from the taxpayers. The concept that some banks were “too big to fail” came in at the end of the 1980s, when the Savings and Loans collapsed and Citibank lost 50 percent of its share price. Negotiations were conducted behind closed doors, and “too big to fail” became standard policy. Bank risk was effectively nationalized: banks were now protected by the government from loss regardless of risk-taking or bad management. There are limits, however, to the amount of support even the government’s deep pocket can provide. In the past two decades, the bankers’ lending scheme has been kept going by an even more speculative scheme known as “derivatives.” This is a complex subject that has been explored in other articles, but the bottom line is that more dollars are now owed in the derivatives casino than exist on the planet. (See Ellen Brown (a civil litigator in Los Angeles)'s “It’s the Derivatives, Stupid!” and “Credit Default Swaps: Derivative Disaster Du Jour”.) Attempting to fill the derivatives black hole with taxpayer money must inevitably be at the expense of other essential programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. Interestingly, Social Security and Medicare themselves are in some sense Ponzi schemes, since earlier retirees collect their benefits from the contributions of later workers. These programs, too, may soon be facing bankruptcy, in this case because their mathematical models failed to account for a huge wave of Baby Boomers who would linger longer than previous generations and demand expensive drugs and care through their senior years, and because the fund money has been drawn on by the government for other purposes. The question here is, should the government be backstopping private banks that have mismanaged their investment portfolios at the expense of workers contractually entitled to a decent retirement from a fund they have paid into all their working lives? The answer, of course, is no; but there may be a way that the government could do both. If it were to nationalize the banking system completely – if the government were to assume not just the banks’ losses but their profits, oversight and control – it might have the funds both to maintain Social Security and Medicare and to provide a sustainable credit mechanism for the whole economy.
Pam Martens, a Wall Street denizen for 21 years who now writes on public interest issues at Counterpunch, tells this throat-clenching story (emphasis marks and some editing was inserted - Ed.)):
On February 24, 2005, I clicked on the evening news to see President Bush finishing his European tour in Slovakia, surrounded by children waving little American flags. It had the feel of a Macy’s holiday window designed by Karl Rove. I recalled a recent news item about Slovakia. Just two months prior to the President’s visit, Slovakia initiated a plan to divert nine per cent of worker’s wages into private investment accounts laden with corporate stocks and bonds as an alternative to a government run social security program. This was similar to a plan that President Bush had peddled under the banner of the “ownership society.” Fortunately, this was one of the rare occasions when the President was rebuked by Congress. Today in the U.S., with both corporate bonds and stocks suffering massive losses and over $2 trillion of taxpayers’ dollars doled out by the Federal Reserve to shore up Wall Street firms in various stages of insolvency, we finally grasp the true meaning of “the ownership society:” the Wall Street execs absconded with the so-called profits; the little people own the losses; the next generation owns the bailout debt. This scheme makes Ponzi artist Bernie Madoff look like a piker. The Slovakia plan was modeled after the program set up in Chile in 1980 and 28 other countries thereafter. According to actuarial studies of the plans in Chile and Mexico, it was an asset stripping operation that allowed Wall Street firms like Citigroup to strip away as much as 20 to 25 per cent of the workers’ wages in fees to “manage” the money. The Chilean plan was the brainchild of Jose Pinera, who served as Labor Minister under the brutal military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Pinera later emerged as the global Pied Piper of private accounts to replace government run social security systems and peddled his pension reform mantra around the globe. In testimony before the U.S. Senate on June 26, 1997, Pinera explained how private accounts move workers to the corporate side of the table: “A typical Chilean worker is not indifferent to the behavior of the stock market or interest rates. Intuitively, he knows that his old age security depends on the well being of the companies that represent the backbone of the economy.” In Pinera’s book, The Bull by the Horns, he says the whole working population can become “shareholder capitalists.” According to Pinera’s web site, http://www.pensionreform.org/, (which is registered not to him, but to the Cato Institute, a free market think tank) Pinera sat down in the Austin home of George W. Bush, then Governor of Texas, and mapped out his vision. I had a chance to personally observe this worker-capitalist dynamic in action in August 1994. I was working for the Wall Street brokerage firm, Smith Barney (which had been taken over by the large insurance company, Traveler’s) and was called to an employee meeting by the branch manager and a visiting V.P. from the corporate headquarters. Employees were shown a new benefits plan that deferred anything we might hypothetically get in deferred compensation invested in company stock into the distant future while dramatically increasing our expenses in the present. While the room was fuming, one of my colleagues spoke up. He said since we’re getting deferred stock over time in the publicly-traded parent company (Traveler’s), and reducing company expenses will boost profits and push the stock price higher, isn’t this something we should support. The room immediately calmed. They had sipped the Kool Aid of shareholder capitalism. (Traveler’s would eventually merge with Citicorp to become Citigroup and in 2008 require a backstop of hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ dollars to prevent the company from collapsing.) I opted out of the stock plan. The fine print of this so-called Capital Appreciation Plan said the firm could keep two years of the wages I put into the plan if I was terminated for cause or left to join a competitor. This sounded to me like shackled shareholder capitalism at best and theft of employee wages at worst. Combined with Traveler’s, and later Citigroup’s, private justice system which barred employees from accessing the nation’s courts as a condition of employment (including whistleblower claims) it was all too Kafkaesque for me. (Citigroup and most Wall Street firms enforce a system called “mandatory arbitration” which moves all legal claims against the firms into an industry run forum which is not required to follow the law, legal precedent or issue a written decision, making an appeal to a court almost impossible.) On April 17, 2001, some dodgy looking police would whisk me off the public sidewalk in front of Citigroup’s shareholder meeting at Carnegie Hall in New York City and throw me in jail for my high crime of peacefully attempting to hand out flyers highlighting Citigroup’s private justice system, Capital “Appreciation” Plan, and myriad abuses against women, minorities and society in general. News media reported that shortly after my pesky personage was removed from the sidewalk, Citigroup’s shadow government (Board of Directors) emerged from their black limos: former President Gerald Ford; former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin; former CIA Director John Deutch. You can imagine my reaction on November 25, 2008 when The New York Post featured a photo spread of Citigroup’s Board of Directors (which included Rubin and Deutch) and a full front page titled “Citi of Fools.” The same issue carried an editorial urging an ouster of the Board (“Bounce These Bozo Bankers”) or perhaps a stronger remedy (“Off with their heads”). The uproar at The Post was over a weekend confab that saw the Federal Reserve guarantee upwards of $300 billion of taxpayer money to bail out Citigroup for the second time in a month and a half. Of that amount, $20 billion was for a paltry equity stake for taxpayers when the whole company could have been bought for $20.5 billion at the prior Friday’s closing price, and that was $4.5 billion less than taxpayers had dumped into the company in October. (It’s not a good omen that the man who helped put this deal together, Tim Geithner, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, has been selected by President-elect Barack Obama to be the new U.S. Treasury Secretary; neither is it promising that Robert Rubin was standing at the elbow of the President-elect in his first press conference, signaling he’s a key advisor.) What progressives need to focus on is that all of these private retirement accounts, IRAs, Roth IRAs and 401(k)s have one homogenous denominator: they are primarily invested in stocks and bonds of multinational companies that we in the progressive community frequently oppose on issues ranging from labor, environment or human rights degradation. Our own money is being deployed in opposition to our goals. We’re financing our own demise. Is it any wonder we have watched union membership collapse? Or have seen a giant swell in the ranks of corporate mandatory arbitration systems that block both the employee and the consumer’s right to redress in a court of law? Is it any mystery why serious investigations of what led to these massive bailouts are missing in Congress; why there has been an absence of large-scale mobilizations and street protests, even in the face of losing an average of 48 to 54 per cent of one’s retirement assets in one year. Should we be surprised that the crooked and incompetent remain in their positions and get a bailout from taxpayers. More than $31 trillion was lost globally in stocks from January 1 to December 2, 2008 while much of this country is stumbling around dazed, afraid to open their 401(k) and IRA statements, repeating the imposed mantra “I’m in it for the long haul.” We’ve arrived at the finish line in the race to the bottom and it’s clear there are few winners: once the little fish were eaten, the big fish fed on each other (Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and assorted hedge fund frauds against the wealthy). Now the big fish have no where else to feed but at the government’s bailout trough, transferring the debt-ownership society to our children. Our own money is also being used against us in electing our President and members of Congress. After subsidizing our corporate health care plan to boost corporate profits or paying for it outright and funding our contribution to our 401(k) plan, which provides a steady stream of cheap capital to boost corporate profits, we have little left to donate to political campaigns. That makes it possible for Wall Street to fund the candidates of both major parties. Our choice becomes corporate candidate A or corporate candidate B and Wall Street installs the money men at Treasury, the regulators and economic advisors to the President. But here’s the good news: Wall Street’s greed and corruption blinded it to its own fragile existence. It completely neglected to notice that its survival was dependent upon the people it was looting. By destroying its customer base, it destroyed itself. The collapse of this strange species of financial Neanderthals in Armani suits is as breathtaking as are the opportunities it opens. We can create a finance model from the ground floor up with our own vision of what we want the future to look like; what we want new companies to bring to market; how we want investors to be treated by their advisors. We can start boutique firms to study young, socially worthwhile businesses and put the promising ones together with financial backers to bring forward as viable, publicly traded companies. We can open schools to train men, women and minorities to become knowledgeable financial consultants and have a placement office to help them get started. (What does it tell you about a 200 year old industry that has no schools to train employees as financial advisors but hires instead on the basis of salesmanship.) We can create independent regional firms all over the country to provide investors with the unbiased advice they crave from salaried employees who are not conflicted by working on commissions, as is now the norm, but get bonuses for how well their clients’ portfolios perform (currently unthinkable at major brokerage firms). Out of chaos emerges opportunity. Are there those among us bold enough to seize it?
When will people awaken to their true plight and raise the necessary clamor for change? Suzan _________________________

4 comments:

Serving Patriot said...

Suzan,

Great stuff. Thanks!

SP

Suzan said...

Just trying to get the word out, baby.

Thanks for being you.

S

Juan Moment said...

Nice catch Suzan, great reading.

Re your question: When will people awaken to their true plight and raise the necessary clamor for change?

Not anytime soon, I am afraid. For a variety of reasons.

A, I reckon the seemingly indifferent public does see the deeper meta, its plain and in their face. As a matter of fact it smacks them/us in our face everyday we get up, right throughout the day, until the last second before we fall asleep, smack. Constantly. How could you not see, hear, feel it, the thirsty mouths of the children without access to water, the heartbreaking look in the eyes of the mother who just had her kid blown up by a landmine? I guess it’s just like with people who live near train tracks, when you are constantly exposed to noise and smacks, eventually you start blocking it out, ending up not seeing the forest for the trees.

B, It’s a matter of not rocking the boat you are sitting in. Mortgaged up to the eyeballs, credit card debts left, right and centre, of course people don’t drill too deep into the foundations their livelihood is based on. Progressive thinkers or not, people don’t sell out, they buy in, becoming a tooth on a cog in the machine that maintains the status quo.

C, As Chomsky once wrote, to suspect a darker ulterior motive to the one publicly stated by our duly elected leaders, people need to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. When you are told from toddler years onwards that the country you were born into is the good guy in any global scenario, all the feature movies you watch in your life confirming this, your history lessons at school omit the truth about the countless millions that were killed by your kinsmen in their quest for power and glory, then it becomes hard to fathom that the truth could be any different. Reality lies in the eye of the beholder.

D, Just like the dude in Matrix I who sold out his mates so that he could be inserted back into the program, knowing that he would be living his life as a battery for the machine, but at least the steak is juicy and has taste, people dread to find out what the actual reality is like. It’s less conflicting to live life in the belief that fundamentally things are ok, and whilst there are problems with our system, there isn’t a better one to replace it with, at least none which would be as tasty and juicy. Revolution is a scary word for many, so let’s satisfy ourselves with corrections merely to the fringes and any social conscience we might have gets channeled into one’s pet cause.

E, The laws governing the human trade of sheepish behavior when it comes to authority are almost prehistoric, when say homo erectus came about, or even earlier. Lets call it herd instinct. Know your place in society and follow the leader of the pack.

This list of reasons for why many people prefer to keep their head in the sand could go on and on. And I’d like to point out that I myself to varying degrees am susceptible to all of the above points.

The moment the puppeteers running the show are picking up on the grumbling vibes coming from the audience, they quickly redecorate the scene and offer a black guy as presidential candidate who promises to bring “change”. Hip hip hurray, the king is dead, long live the king. And so the emphasis changes exactly one iota, from subduing Iraqis back to killing Afghanis.

In my humble opinion, the solution lies in the maxim “people united can never be defeated”. It’s as simple but also as complicated as that. However, for any opposition to be successful, it has to be outer parliamentary and mass based. Ideally it uses the system’s weapons for its own purpose, leaving any stunts pulled lawful and without causing bloodshed on the streets. 10 million people giving $100 every quarter to a fund designed to pay for advertising the ugly truth, that’s a billion dollars, a lot of ads. Every quarter. What are the media outlets gonna do? Not take the money?

20 million people of all walks of life strolling on the same day into their nearest cop shop to hand themselves in for having smoked a marijuana joint or jaywalked across main street, clogging up the rigged justice system so badly that it will become almost defunct.

To finish up, maybe we should spend some of our time exploring avenues on how to kick start an effective resistance, how to harness the desire for change. Democratic means will not do so, the rules are rigged in their favour. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote, Democracy is when two wolves and a lamb vote on what’s for lunch. Liberty is a well armed lamb contesting the vote.

Greetings

Juan

Suzan said...

I'm right behind you, Juan!

Thanks sooooooooooooo much for commenting.

To finish up, maybe we should spend some of our time exploring avenues on how to kick start an effective resistance, how to harness the desire for change. Democratic means will not do so, the rules are rigged in their favour. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote, Democracy is when two wolves and a lamb vote on what’s for lunch. Liberty is a well armed lamb contesting the vote.