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Are Bailouts for the Super-Rich Inevitable? Ask Paul Krugman

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"There's every reason to believe that this will be the rule from now on: when push comes to shove, no matter who is in power, the financial sector will be bailed out." Paul Krugman, 3/29/10

"The recovery of big banks not only benefited bankers. It also created huge paydays for hedge fund managers, with the top 25 taking home an average of $1 billion in 2009." New York Times, 4/1/10

Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and influential New York Times columnist, says Wall Street institutions have become so big and powerful that they will never be allowed to fail. The only hope he sees is to regulate them thoroughly. He greatly prefers the stricter rules now being offered by Barney Frank in the House to the softer ones coming from Chris Dodd in the Senate. (Neither bill truly tackles the derivatives casino.)

Krugman criticizes Senate Republican leaders who portray proposed bank regulations as just another Wall Street bailout. In fact these hypocritical leaders are doing all they can to thwart the Obama administration's modest reforms and befriend Wall Street, hoping to net some cold, hard political cash from the bankers.

Unfortunately, when Krugman says bailouts are inevitable, he's handing the government haters another round of ammunition. "See, the liberal/pinkos are going to just keep on bailing out Wall Street," they piously intone.

But, why isn't Krugman calling for an end to all financial bailouts for the wealthy, instead of announcing that they will go on forever?

One reason is that he doesn't think breaking up the big banks will work: "I don't have any love for financial giants," he writes, but I just don't believe that breaking them up solves the key problem." He argues that a run on thousands of little banks, as in the 1930s, would also require bailouts to avoid another Great Depression.

Krugman's sad fatalism is particularly worrisome to those of us who usually welcome his insightful commentaries. We expect thinkers like Krugman to imagine a better financial system -- even if it's not politically attainable right now. And that vision shouldn't involve bailing out the richest, most reckless financiers, no matter what. Why should we ever accept or justify plutocracy?

Just think about the implications of Krugman's stance. Wall Street remains in firm control of our nation's economy since they know they'll always get bailed out of trouble. The inevitability of bailouts encourages bankers to find yet more ways to gamble with investor and taxpayer money. How long do you think it will take our ingenious financial engineers and tax lawyers to "innovate" around Congress's new rules (especially the Senate's extra-weak ones)?

With everyone going so easy on the bankers who just sank our economy, Wall Street is using our bailout funds to reward its executives with bonuses that have no relationship to any real value they create for our economy. Just look at what is going on in the world of shadow banking. In 2009, the worst economic year for working people since the Great Depression (29 million Americans unemployed or forced into part-time jobs -- with the BLS March 2010 jobless rate at 17.5 percent or 18.7 percent if you count discouraged workers), the top 25 hedge fund managers "earned" on average $1 billion each! And that money is taxed only at 15 percent since it's counted as capital gains. I defy anyone to show how those "earnings" can be justified in terms of job creation, contribution to our economy or social utility. And where did all that money come from? From us! If we hadn't bailed out the big banks, these hedge fund managers would have earned nothing at all.

Because the financial pay scales are so outlandish and unconnected to the production of real value, it makes effective regulation even more difficult. Can we really expect government regulators with civil service salaries not to cast their eyes on the sweet sinecures they might snag in the financial sector after they've finished their grubby tour of duty in the government? How hard are they really going to press their future employers? (Any bets on where Chris Dodd will end up?)

Krugman has focused some much needed attention on the deregulation of finance since the 1980s and the rise of the shadow banking system, which evolved into a crazy unregulated casino of finance. But that's only half the story. Why isn't he -- and why aren't we all -- talking about the gutting of progressive taxation, which also started in the 1980s? We didn't just deregulate Wall Street back in the disco era. We threw out the whole idea of significantly taxing the super-rich. The marginal tax rate on those who earned more than $3 million (in today's dollars) dropped from 91 percent during the Eisenhower years to 28 percent by 1990.

Now the richest 400 people in the US are effectively taxed at only 16 percent, according to the latest IRS report. And that doesn't even include the money these stupendously wealthy people didn't declare and the resulting taxes they didn't pay. In fact, we are losing $100 billion in taxes from the super-rich each year because they are hiding their money in overseas accounts. They've stashed it there for one purpose only -- to avoid taxes that they are legally required to pay. (We lose another $30 billion a year in corporate profits taxes hidden in the same ways.).

If we forced those tax cheats to pay what they owe, we could fund free tuition for every student in America who was admitted to a public college or university. And if we had even more nerve and reinstituted progressive taxation, we could put America back to work, rebuild our infrastructure and build a new green economy -- without going further into debt.

Let's also talk about how deregulated finance and tax cuts for the super-rich destabilized our economy. We created the perfect conditions for big-time financial gambling. The super-rich had amassed so much money that they literally ran out of decent investments in the real economy of goods and services. And so shadow banking was born. Investors started chasing after fantasy finance securities like synthetic CDOs. Those were the casino chips that financed the savings and loan fiasco, the dot.com bubble and the housing explosion. Too much money in the hands of the few is the root cause of financial speculation and crashes -- same as it ever was.

Along the way much of our economy was financialized. By the 1990s, a lot of people thought the future was in hybrid financial securities, not hybrid cars. Shortly before the crash nearly 40 percent of all corporate profits came from financial corporations producing little of real value. Wall Street wasn't serving Main Street. Rather, Main Street -- and all of us -- were serving the Wall Street bankers.

The result: a financial crash and an obscene distribution of wealth. Allow me to share again with you the one factoid that says it all: It 1970 the ratio of compensation between the top 100 CEOs and the average worker in the US was 45 to 1. By 2008 it was 1,071 to one. No one can justify that gap on the basis of talent, knowledge or effort.

So here we are in our new billionaire bailout society. Its features include a collapsing infrastructure, chronic high unemployment, a gutted public sector, a hollowed out middle class and a depleted environment. It's a place where the super-rich keep on getting richer, not because they are creating new jobs for Americans, but because they are gambling yet again, knowing we will bail them out.

Yes, regulation is critically important. But it's not enough. If financial institutions truly are too big and too interconnected too fail, then we have only two choices: Bust them up so that they are small enough to fail, or turn all the major banks and their large shadows into public utilities.

It's just not right or sane to let private bankers and investors walk off again and again with billions of taxpayer dollars for what amounts to wrecking our way of life. But alas, this is the nightmare we're going to keep having until our best thinkers put forth a compelling vision to end the insanity.

Come on, Mr. Krugman -- let 'er rip! We know you're not ready to make peace with our pampered and grossly overpaid financial elites. Americans are looking for a way out of our billionaire bailout society. Lead the way!

Les Leopold is the author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance destroyed our Jobs, Pensions and Prosperity, and What We Can Do About It Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2009.