Every country has its dominant elites, oligarchs of one kind or another. The challenge is to change them when they get too powerful. The United States, too, has its oligarchy, the banking/financial industry, which has grown so powerful that it thrives on the chaos it created and blocks essential reforms. Ousting the oligarchy must be accomplished soon, or else we may well suffer not just a repeat of the Great Depression, but something worse.That paragraph summarizes the unsettling message of “The Quiet Coup,” an article in the May issue of The Atlantic by Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Now a professor at MIT, Johnson draws on his experience at the Fund to describe the typical plight of “emerging market” countries in a desperate economic situation.
“The biggest obstacle to recovery is almost invariably the politics of the countries in crisis….The powerful elites within them overreached in good times and took too many risks,” he writes. Then, in the downward spiral that follows “the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government.” But an economic reform program succeeds “only if at least some of the powerful oligarchs who did so much to create the underlying problems take a hit.”
Johnson compares the situation of troubled emerging market countries with that of the United States, except that here it’s much worse, as he sees it. “Just as we have the world’s most advanced economy, military, and technology, we have its most advanced oligarchy” -– the banking/financial industry.
Economist Jagdish Bhagwati’s name for this oligarchy is the “Wall Street-Treasury complex,” a powerful network he describes as “unable to look beyond the interests of Wall Street which it equates with the good of the world.” Like Bhagwati, Johnson illustrates its influence by tracking the back-and-forth movement of its leaders between Wall Street and top federal government posts in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
In a key insight, Johnson writes: “The American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital – a belief system…[that held] that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country…In a society that celebrates the idea of making money, it was easy to infer that the interests of the financial sector were the same as the interests of the country.”
What followed in the past decade is what Johnson calls “a river of deregulatory polices that is, in hindsight, astonishing.” Three items from his list of seven:
-- The insistence on the free movement of capital across borders.
-- Major increases in the amount of leverage [borrowing] allowed to investment banks.
-- A light (dare I say invisible?) hand at the Securities and Exchange Commission in its regulatory enforcement.
The environment, or at least public opinion, has now changed, but “financial elites have continued to assume that their position as the economy’s favored-children is safe, despite the wreckage they have caused.” And the government itself “has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here.”
For Johnson, “the government’s velvet-glove approach with the banks is deeply troubling, for one simple reason: it [doesn’t] change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms, at a time when that behavior MUST change.” Instead, big banks have a veto power over public policy, despite their loss of popular support.
The solution? Johnson’s advice, as he puts it, is similar to the advice that the IMF, and the U.S. government, has given to developing countries in deep economic trouble: temporary nationalization of hopelessly insolvent banks. Instead, the U.S. Treasury is trying to negotiate bailouts bank by bank, and “behaving as if the banks hold all the cards.”
Meanwhile, in foreign trade and investment policy, an area not examined by Johnson, the Obama administration has signaled that it will ask Congress to ratify the three still pending Free Trade [and investment] agreements negotiated by the Bush administration with Columbia, Korea, and Panama. There likely will be changes in the contents, but none in how the agreements extend Wall Street’s power in the global economy and hence in the United States also.
Johnson’s overall assessment: “The Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus [program] evokes FDR, but what we need to imitate here is Teddy Roosevelt’s trustbusting.” Its operating principle would be: “Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist.’
The article’s closing analysis is dire:
“What we face now could, in fact, be worse than the Great Depression – because the banking sector is now so big. We face a synchronized downturn in almost all countries, a weakening of confidence among individuals and firms and major problems for government finances. If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.”To learn more about Johnson’s ideas, see the Website he co-founded, BaselineScenario.com.