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American Oligarchy

Don’t expect real reform from the Wall Street Democrats.

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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"Now, the Senate Republican leader, he paid a visit to Wall Street a week or two ago,” said President Obama at a California fundraiser for Barbara Boxer in mid-April, putting on a mocking, homespun voice. “He took along the chairman of their campaign committee. He met with some of the movers and shakers up there. I don’t know exactly what was discussed. All I can tell you is when he came back, he promptly announced he would oppose the financial regulatory reform.”

American Oligarchy

To judge from the guffawing that followed, few in attendance realized that Obama is more dependent on “movers and shakers” in the financial sector than any president of our time, although the files of the Federal Election Commission make this clear as day. The movers at Goldman Sachs, whose top employees were grilled before the Senate Banking Committe last week, gave Obama’s party three times as much money in the last cycle ($4.5 million) as they gave to Mitch McConnell’s ($1.5 million). The shakers at Citicorp gave Democrats almost twice as much ($3.1 million) as they gave Republicans ($1.8 million). 

So every time the president accuses Republicans of trying to “block progress” or of defying “common sense,” as he did that night, he is executing a dangerous tightrope walk. His party’s electoral fortunes depend on his making forceful calls for reform of our banking laws. His party’s fundraising fortunes depend on his ensuring that no serious reform—of the kind that endangers the big banks’ size and power—ever happens. That may be why the Democrats’ strategy of painting the Republicans as obstructionists on finance reform has gained little traction. By the same token, if Republicans ever did get serious about reforming the banks—and even about breaking up an industry that has turned into a Democratic war chest—they would put Democrats in mortal peril. There seems no chance of this. Obama’s taunts show a confidence, verging on certitude, that Republicans’ hypocrisy is as deep as his own.

What does it mean, the inability or unwillingness of either party to change or discipline the big banks in any way, even after all the havoc they have lately caused? In the year and a half since the implosion of Lehman Brothers, Simon Johnson, who was the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund in 2007 and 2008, is the only person to have come up with a plausible explanation. He has done so by examining the United States as an IMF analyst would examine some bankrupt basket-case of a country in what used to be called the Third World. Johnson believes that the leaders of the American finance industry have turned into the sort of oligarchy more typical of the developing world, and that they have “captured” the government and its regulatory functions. Johnson laid out this bombshell thesis in the Atlantic a year ago. 

There are many ways for countries to blunder their way into big economic trouble: Kleptocracy, capital flight, or a commodity-price crash can all spark a panic or collapse. Nevertheless, Johnson wrote, “to IMF officials, all of these crises looked depressingly similar. Each country, of course, needed a loan, but more than that, each needed to make big changes so that the loan could really work.” In a gripping new book, 13 Bankers (Pantheon, 304 pages, $26.95), written with his brother-in-law James Kwak, Johnson explains why those changes aren’t happening in the United States.

Most countries rescued by the IMF are marked by tight links between the business elite and the political elite. They are oligarchies. Johnson defines oligarchy as a system whereby economic power can be translated into political power (and vice versa). When you try to fix a country dominated by an oligarchy, you immediately hit a frustrating paradox: Rescue plans make the oligarchy more powerful. An IMF loan is a lifeline. Somebody has to decide which banks and industries get to use it, and which ones are set adrift. In this process, the cement company owned by the finance minister’s cousin does better than the cement company run by some schmuck in the hinterland. And it is not just that politically favored companies get the original infusion of IMF cash. Private investors can see what is going on and realize that it is “best to invest in the firms with the most political power (and hence the most assurance of being bailed out in a crisis).” So if the politically connected rich don’t pay, who does? “Most emerging-market governments,” according to Johnson, “look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large.”

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