President Obama won't tell us in his State of the Union address. The deficit hawks won't crow about it. Don't expect the Tea Party or Rush and Beck to highlight our generosity either. But the sad fact is this: During the worst year since the Great Depression, with 30 million people out of work or forced into part-time jobs, Wall Street is awarding itself $150 billion in bonus money.....and it comes from us!
That's $500 for every man, women and child in the country -- $2,000 for a family of four. (Maybe we should try deducting it from our income taxes as a charitable donation.)
Had we not bailed out the financial sector, there would be no bonus pool this year. Zip, zero, ziltch.
It seems like financial Alzheimer's setting in as many forget how all this happened. Wall Street, and no one else, crashed the economy through its fantasy finance extravaganza. It created, sold and traded a slew of newfangled financial instruments that were supposed to remove risk from risky investments. Wall Street went begging for subprime debt in order to create and market their new financial securities, the most profitable activity in their history. As a result of their securitization casino, which leveraged bet upon bet, the housing market turned into a bubble and finally burst. Wall Street had miscalculated, big time. The risk returned with a vengeance.
Not matter what Rick Santelli proclaims, government interference didn't cause the crash. Greedy, stupid home buyers didn't cause the crash. Poor people backed by the Community Reinvestment Act didn't crash the system. And China didn't cause it either. The book should be closed on this: Wall Street's fantasy finance casino did us in. (Please see The Looting of America for a fuller account.)
Once housing prices stopped their meteoric rise, the entire precarious structure of bets piled upon subprime loans, turned toxic. The banking system froze and the real economy was tossed off a cliff. We truly were on our way to the next Great Depression.
Policy leaders of all stripes bailed out the financial system because they thought there was no choice--and that was true to an extent. Preventing total financial collapse was necessary. The choices to be made were about how to prevent a further collapse and what kinds of demands we'd make on the banks that had brought disaster upon themselves and the rest of us. Bush, Paulson, Bernanke, Obama, Geithner, Summers and Congress made their choices. They poured money into the banking sector like never before. We gave the Wall Street banks gigantic loans and enormous guarantees on their toxic assets. We gave them TARP. It all totaled to more than $12 trillion, with most of it still in play, even after the TARP repayments. (See Nomi Prins's excellent accounting..)
We can, and should, argue about whether the bailout was put together properly. A strong case can be made that the victims (the public), rather than the perpetrators (Wall Street's casinos), should have received our support. Clearly, there were much better ways to rescue the failing economy and produce jobs, which is still by far our number one problem.
Wall Street was saved from bankruptcy, including Goldman Sachs which now cavalierly insists that it didn't really need the bailout money (yet it took $12.9 billion of taxpayer support via AIG, and tossed it into its bonus pool.) Wall Streeters actually think they've earned the $150 billion in bonuses through their own cleverness. Think again. It's nothing more than taxpayer welfare.
Of course, no one wants to admit that we put the richest people in the world on welfare. It's embarrassing to acknowledge that we are rewarding those who killed millions of jobs. And worst of all, our political establishment doesn't have the nerve to take our money back.
Instead the President talks about getting back every penny of our TARP money, with interest. Not good enough, because that still leaves the $150 billion of taxpayer largess in the bankers' pockets, where it doesn't belong.
The deficit chicken hawks (who now seem to have Obama in their roost) also have no intention of clawing back our money. Instead they would rather attack domestic programs that assist unemployed workers, the old and the infirm. (Of course, you won't hear them question the wasted billions in the military budget or in the needless war in Afghanistan.)
The only group really kicking up a fuss is the Tea Party. But their ideology is so screwed up that they'd rather see the money stay on Wall Street. Their righteous indignation is fueled by blaming government, Obama, the Fed and the liberal elites for putting it there. They have no room in their ideological universe for windfall taxes on unwarranted bonuses, which they derisively call the redistribution of income, even when their own hard-earned incomes are being redistributed to Wall Street bankers. Very generous of them.
That leaves the terrain wide open for a new progressive populist movement aimed directly at taking back from our $2,000 per family from Wall Street's unearned bonuses. It's not a panacea for our jobs crisis or even a solution to Wall Street's dysfunctional role in our economy, but it is a very good place to start.
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.
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