I’ve been through three chemistry explosions. A flask of oxygen and acetylene blew up. The second involved molten sodium on water. The third involved hydrogen, which lifted the airship “Hindenburg,” burning in that disaster. All were at age 12. All produced immense explosions that totally consumed the scientific apparatus.
There’s a moral to this tale. Children should be supervised when playing with exciting but dangerous stuff. So should “grown-ups.” Financial derivatives create exciting profits for Wall Street. They also create dangerous political contributions. “There’s the rub,” as Hamlet said. After the Constitution was drafted, Ben Franklin told a bystander that America would have a democracy “if you can keep it.” So, have we? Welcome to the tragedy.
If you voted for Republicans, you voted to gut trade unions, which used to support the Democrats financially. And you voted for a conservative Supreme Court. It gutted the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, an issue right there. (Sharper Focus, Guns are People, April 3, 2014) Political campaigns now cost millions. Hence, Bill Clinton had no alternative but to accept Wall Street’s money simply to stay in the game. But he who pays the piper calls the tune. Clinton had made a bargain with the devil. He was beholden to Wall Street. He signed the 1999 Financial Services Modernization Act and the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act (jammed last-minute into a crucial funding bill by Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas). These acts of Congress were the chemistry experiments, as it were, of Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Sandy Weill, Larry Summers and our dear departed friends Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan.
And they were experiments on a grand scale. The number of derivatives issued was estimated at $600 trillion. For comparison, America’s entire annual economic output was around $14 trillion. Here’s the point: these derivatives grew enormously, could do massive damage, but were entirely unregulated. There were no adults supervising the children playing in the science lab.
The whole lot blew up in 2008 and nearly consumed the entire science lab, to wit, the economy. Finance houses fell like dominos and industrial output plunged worldwide, remember? This disaster was entirely foreseen by people with functioning brains. Democrat and self-made billionaire Warren Buffett said Wall Street’s derivatives were “financial weapons of mass destruction.” Strong stuff! But he was ignored. He wasn’t part of the gravy train, refusing even to touch those derivatives. Brooksley Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, made a valiant stand against the gravy train. She was silenced, of course. Naysayers are boring. Chemistry’s fun!
A very nasty derivative is called a “credit default swap.” Now, swaps aren’t all bad. I have one myself. I went to AAA and said, “Swap you some dough for a car policy.” They swapped a possible hit to their reserves in exchange for my moolah. But there’s another rub. What if the children have fun cranking out billions in swaps, rake in moolah by the millions, but don’t have enough reserves to pay the claims when the whole lot blows up?
Simple. You pay! Yes, my friends, that’s you. Well, Uncle Sam. Republicans know that Sam’s a soft touch. The world’s largest insurance company, AIG, cost Sam $182 billion for its bailout in 2008. It’s been repaid, but that’s not the point. Taxpayers took the risk, but got a lousy return. Why?
Simple. Mustn’t charge our friends on Wall Street too much!
Washington doesn’t regulate Wall Street; Wall Street regulates Washington. You can read this tragedy in Robert Scheer’s excellent 2010 book, The Great American Stickup: How Reagan Republicans and Clinton Democrats Enriched Wall Street While Mugging Main Street. Yes: Clinton is one of the best Republican presidents we’ve had, giving us disastrous bipartisan “solutions.” The 2008 Crash cost America about $15 trillion in lost wealth, threw millions out of work, and made all Americans look like fools. And swindlers, to boot: the Swiss, Germans and British were bilked out of billions.
Scheer describes the AIG bailout as the greatest swindle in world history. Billions vanished into AIG, then came out at Goldman Sachs, paying nice juicy bonuses. No surprise; Goldman’s alumni in the Bush administration rushed it all through.
A casual reader in a coffee bar may suppose that our nation’s finest learnt a lesson from the 2008 explosion. They didn’t. The hero in a tragedy can’t learn due to a character flaw. Last December, Citigroup’s lobbyists cheerfully gave Republicans a draft law to abolish controls on these swaps. They said, “Jump.” Republicans said, “How high?” And they plunked it verbatim into another vital budget bill, Gramm-style, at the last minute, again forcing Democrats to vote for their next little experiment. Make that “experiments”; there’ll be more.
Republican children are having more fun with chemistry, have forgotten 2008, and the result could well be another tragedy.