03/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shameful Bankers: Time for a Revolution

Barack Obama has finally realized that, yes, bankers' behavior is "shameful," "outrageous" and the "height of irresponsibility." The solution: he and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will have direct conversations with corporate leaders to make the point. That's nice, but it's obviously not going to cut it. Now that US banks are essentially nationalized, what would work is for bank employees to be treated as federal government workers for the purposes of compensation and ethical behavior. And the same should apply to all businesses in which the government has had a significant hand in bailing out formerly private-sector companies.

Presumably no one, except for the corrupt bankers themselves, will have the chutzpah to raise the prospect of a recruiting drought for qualified financiers. Frankly, it is utterly impossible to find one senior banker still in place who has not demonstrated breathtaking incompetence and crooked greed. Those former superstars Robert Rubin, John Thain and Richard Fuld are just the tip of an iceberg of gross ineptitude and demonic lack of morality: their colleagues and subalterns deserve as much reproach as their leaders, and should be grateful to be employed at any salary. If they believe they can day-trade their way to an income that can compete with federal salaries, by all means they should: no one is forcing them to stay. Really, no one should even be asking them to stay.

Many of us opposed the banking bailout because it was clear there were no checks and balances on what amounted to a gross subsidy of financial corporations' bloated, unethical operations. How was this clear? Because we know these people, the Thains and the Fulds and the Rubins of this world: you could not come between them and a measly $1 million if your life depended on it. What were the odds that they would not plunder the federal subsidies in the same way they plundered their stupid shareholders represented by complicit boards? Laughably low, as anyone with an even remote knowledge of these people's personal and business behavior knows full well. Government leaders of both parties were frighteningly naive to think that bankers would do the right thing: they became rich by doing the wrong thing, and plan on staying rich by doing the wrong thing. They don't know any other way and even if they did, they would deem the returns too low: too complicated and not lucrative enough. Goldman Sachs alumni, with Rubin and Thain as their mascots, deserve particular scorn, not because they are particularly greedy, but because they successfully sold themselves as guardians of a vanishing ethic, gentleman and lady bankers who went back and forth between government and the private sector, dispensing their sagacity to mere mortals. That they become extraordinarily wealthy in the process was just a by-product of their benevolence, not the goal. What a joke.

Even now that it is clear that the misbehavior is not relegated to a few bad apples but to the cream of the banking crop, who are pillaging taxpayer and investor funds, the best the government can do is to "talk to them"? Could this have anything to do with the dreadfully incestuous relationship between Washington and Wall Street: whether it is the shockingly high contributions from the financial industry greedily amassed by Senator Charles Schumer, or the ties that bind Geithner to Rubin, there is no way these two, to name just them, are going to properly regulate their masters. There are a very few in Washington who seem to get it. Senator Russ Feingold, for instance, was on to something when he voted against Geithner's nomination: he doesn't trust Obama's nominee as far as he can throw a dollar bill, and neither should he. Rep. Barney Frank seems to have finally seen the light, but why did it take $350 billion of our money flushed down the reeking drains of Wall Street for him to realize that the TARP bill he pushed so forcefully was catastrophically flawed in its lack of oversight, and in its acceptance that the corrupt and/or inept banking executives stay in place?

The United States is not a country for revolutions, its inception notwithstanding, nor is it one to make forceful, sudden changes. Now, however, would seem as good a time as any for an insurrection, not against the new president or the federal government in which we still mostly have confidence despite the meek response to the larceny that is occurring in the financial industry. No, the insurrection should be against the brainless version of capitalism that has made its home in the United States and, increasingly, in Western Europe, with the resulting economic disasters of which we are only just seeing the beginning. Specifically, let's insist with all our pent-up anger that those industries that are failing either be allowed to fail or be nationalized, and that their leaders be fired and brought to justice. For, in truth, their behavior has been criminal in its misuse of investor and government funds. The injury they have caused the country cannot be repaired quickly, but they can certainly be made to suffer where it matters most: why not confiscate every dollar they own, and their families own? This money is owed to us not under a Marxist-Leninist belief (although that is looking more appealing every day) but because they actually, directly stole it.

This does not mean that the rest of us can feel absolved just because we hang (metaphorically-- at least for now) a bunch of financiers drunk with greed and stupidity. While there are many victims in the colossal Ponzi scheme that is the American economy, few of these victims have not in some way been complicit, if only because many of us blissfully ignored the obvious: that we could not afford what we were buying; that get-rich schemes are, just that, schemes; that the lack of investment in education, transportation and the environment would hurt all of us; that all boats were not lifted in the recent economic expansion (in fact, very, very few boats were lifted). Hopefully after we banish the current crop of financial executives forever, we can move on to understanding our own responsibility, and take charge of the government in ways that we have been too lazy or scared to do in the past. And insist as angrily and forcibly as we legally can that the time has come for an American revolution, one in which our schools, our health and our environment take precedence over all else. And that those who stand in our way will not be treated as kindly as the bankers have been.