The Complete (Though Ever-Changing) Elite Consensus Over the Financial Collapse

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Salon

The Complete (Though Ever-Changing) Elite Consensus Over the Financial Collapse

by
Glenn Greenwald

John Diamond, USA Today, February 4, 2004 -- "A desert mirage: How U.S. misjudged Iraq's arsenal":

 

The assertion that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons -- and the ability to use them against his neighbors and even the United States -- was expressed in an Oct. 1, 2002, document called a National Intelligence Estimate. The estimate didn't trigger President Bush's determination to oust Saddam. But it weighed heavily on members of Congress as they decided to authorize force against Iraq, and it was central to Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council a year ago this week. . . .

The Bush and Clinton administrations, foreign intelligence services, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress all took it as a given that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons.

Walter Pincus, The Washington Post, August 11, 2007 -- "How the Fight for Vast New Spying Powers Was Won":

For three days, Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, had haggled with congressional leaders over amendments to a federal surveillance law, but now he was putting his foot down. "This is the issue," said the plain-spoken retired vice admiral and Vietnam veteran, "that makes my blood pressure rise. . . .

McConnell won the fight, extracting a key concession despite the misgivings of Democratic negotiators. Congressional, administration and intelligence officials last week described the events leading up to the approval of this surveillance, including a remarkable series of confrontations that ended with McConnell and the White House outmaneuvering the Democratic-controlled Congress, partly by capitalizing on fresh reports of a growing terrorism threat.

"We had a forcing function," a senior administration official said, referring to the intelligence community's public report last month that said al-Qaeda poses a growing threat to the United States and to lawmakers' desire to leave town in August. . . .

A critical moment for the Democrats came on July 24, when McConnell met in a closed session with senators from both parties to ask for urgent approval of a slimmed-down version of his bill. Armed with new details about terrorist activity and an alarming decline in U.S. eavesdropping capabilities, he argued that Congress had days, not weeks, to act.

"Everybody who heard him speak recognized the absolute, compelling necessity to move," Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), vice chairman of the intelligence panel, said later of the closed session.

Democrats agreed. As delivered by McConnell, the warnings were seen as fully credible. "He's pushing this because he thinks we're in a high-threat environment," the senior aide said. . . .McConnell deemed [the Democratic draft's] fine print unacceptable, however, and in the end, it was the Republican bill, a near-copy of his proposal, that passed both chambers of Congress.

David Herszenhorn, New York Times, today, "Congressional Leaders Stunned by Warnings":

It was a room full of people who rarely hold their tongues. But as the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, laid out the potentially devastating ramifications of the financial crisis before congressional leaders on Thursday night, there was a stunned silence at first.

Mr. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. had made an urgent and unusual evening visit to Capitol Hill, and they were gathered around a conference table in the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"When you listened to him describe it you gulped," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.

As Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, put it Friday morning on the ABC program "Good Morning America," the congressional leaders were told "that we’re literally maybe days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system, with all the implications here at home and globally."

Mr. Schumer added, "History was sort of hanging over it, like this was a moment."

When Mr. Schumer described the meeting as "somber," Mr. Dodd cut in. "Somber doesn't begin to justify the words," he said. "We have never heard language like this."

"What you heard last evening," he added, "is one of those rare moments, certainly rare in my experience here, is Democrats and Republicans deciding we need to work together quickly."

Leave aside for the moment whether this gargantuan nationalization/bailout scheme is "necessary" in some utilitarian sense. One doesn't have to be an economics expert in order for several facts to be crystal clear:

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First, the fact that Democrats are on board with this scheme means absolutely nothing. When it comes to things the Bush administration wants, Congressional Democrats don't say "no" to anything. They say "yes" to everything. That's what they're for.

They say "yes" regardless of whether they understand what they're endorsing. They say "yes" regardless of whether they've been told even the most basic facts about what they're being told to endorse. They say "yes" anytime doing so is politically less risky than saying "no," which is essentially always and is certainly the case here. They say "yes" whenever the political establishment -- meaning establishment media outlets and the corporate class that funds them -- wants them to say "yes," which is the case here. And they say "yes" with particular speed and eagerness when told to do so by the Serious Trans-Partisan Republican Experts like Hank Paulson and Ben Bernake (or Mike McConnell and Robert Gates and, before them, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell).

So nothing could be less reassuring or more meaningless than the fact that the Democratic leadership has announced that what they heard scared them so much that they are certain all of this is necessary -- whatever "all this" might be (and does anyone think that they know what "this" even is?). It may be "necessary" or may not be, but the fact that Congressional Democrats are saying this is irrelevant, since they would not have done anything else -- they're incapable of doing anything else -- other than giving their stamp of approval when they're told to.

Second, whatever else is true, the events of the last week are the most momentous events of the Bush era in terms of defining what kind of country we are and how we function -- and before this week, the last eight years have been quite momentous, so that is saying a lot. Again, regardless of whether this nationalization/bailout scheme is "necessary" or makes utilitarian sense, it is a crime of the highest order -- not a "crime" in the legal sense but in a more meaningful sense.

What is more intrinsically corrupt than allowing people to engage in high-reward/no-risk capitalism -- where they reap tens of millions of dollars and more every year while their reckless gambles are paying off only to then have the Government shift their losses to the citizenry at large once their schemes collapse? We've retroactively created a win-only system where the wealthiest corporations and their shareholders are free to gamble for as long as they win and then force others who have no upside to pay for their losses. Watching Wall St. erupt with an orgy of celebration on Friday after it became clear the Government (i.e., you) would pay for their disaster was literally nauseating, as the very people who wreaked this havoc are now being rewarded.

More amazingly, they're free to walk away without having to disgorge their gains; at worst, they're just "forced" to walk away without any further stake in the gamble. How can these bailouts not at least be categorically conditioned on the disgorgement of ill-gotten gains from those who are responsible? The mere fact that shareholders might lose their stake going forward doesn't resolve that concern; why should those who so fantastically profited from these schemes they couldn't support walk away with their gains? This is "redistribution of wealth" and "government takeover of industry" on the grandest scale imaginable -- the buzzphrases that have been thrown around for decades to represent all that is evil and bad in the world. That's all this is; it's not an "investment" by the Government in any real sense but just a magical transfer of losses away from those who are responsible for these losses to those who aren't.

And all of this was both foreseeable as well as foreseen -- see the 2002 grave warnings from Warren Buffett on pages 14-15 of his shareholders letter (.pdf), among many other things -- and it's also happened before, when the Federal Government bailed out the S&L industry that (with John McCain's help) was able to gamble recklessly and then force the country to protect them from their losses. The people who did this have no fear of anything -- they completely lack the kind of healthy fear that impedes reckless behavior -- because they know how our Government works and that they control it and thus believe that their capacity to suffer is limited in the extreme. And they're right about that.

What's most vital to underscore is that the beneficiaries of this week's extraordinary Government schemes aren't just the coincidental recipients of largesse due to some random stroke of good luck. The people on whose behalf these schemes are being implemented -- the true beneficiaries -- are the very same people who have been running and owning our Government -- both parties -- for decades, which is why they have been able to do what they've been doing without interference. They were able to gamble without limit because they control the Government, and now they're having others bear the brunt of their collapse for the same reason -- because the Government is largely run for their benefit.

If there is any "pitchfork moment" -- an episode that understandably would send people into the streets in mass outrage -- it would be this. Nobody really even seems to know how much of these losses "the Government" -- meaning working people who had no part in the profits from these transactions -- is undertaking virtually overnight but it's at least a trillion dollars, an amount so vast it's hard to comprehend, let alone analyze in terms of consequences. The transactions are way too complex even for the most sophisticated financial analysts to understand, let alone value. Whatever else is true, generations of Americans are almost certainly going to be severely burdened in untold ways by the events of the last week -- ones that have been carried out largely without any debate and mostly in secret.

Third, what's probably most amazing of all is the contrast between how gargantuan all of this is and the complete absence of debate or disagreement over what's taking place. It's not just that, as usual, Democrats and Republicans are embracing the same core premises ("this is regrettable but necessary"). It's that there's almost no real discussion of what happened, who is responsible, and what the consequences are. It's basically as though the elite class is getting together and discussing this all in whispers, coordinating their views, and releasing just enough information to keep the stupid masses content and calm.

Can anyone point to any discussion of what the implications are for having the Federal Government seize control of the largest and most powerful insurance company in the country, as well as virtually the entire mortgage industry and other key swaths of financial services? Haven't we heard all these years that national health care was an extremely risky and dangerous undertaking because of what happens when the Federal Government gets too involved in an industry? What happened in the last month dwarfs all of that by many magnitudes.

The Treasury Secretary is dictating to these companies how they should be run and who should run them. The Federal Government now controls what were -- up until last month -- vast private assets. These are extreme -- truly radical -- changes to how our society functions. Does anyone have any disagreement with any of it or is anyone alarmed by what the consequences are -- not the economic consequences but the consequences of so radically changing how things function so fundamentally and so quickly?

Other countries are debating it. The headline in the largest Brazilian newspaper this week was: "Capitalist Socialism??" and articles all week have questioned -- with alarm -- whether what the U.S. Government did has just radically and permanently altered the world economic system and ushered in some perverse form of "socialism" where industries are nationalized and massive debt imposed on workers in order to protect the wealthiest. If Latin America is shocked at the degree of nationalization and government-mandated transfer of wealth, that is a pretty compelling reflection of how extreme -- unprecedented -- it all is.

But there's virtually no discussion of that in America's dominant media outlets. All one hears is that everything that is happening is necessary to save us all from economic doom. And what's most amazing about that is that the Natural, Unchallenged Consensus That Nobody Questions can shift drastically in a matter of days and still nobody questions anything. This is what Atrios observed as I was writing this post:

It's fascinating to watch how easily consensus is manufactured. A few days ago elite opinion seemed to be cheering Paulson's "no bailout" line, and now they're cheering a trillion bucks thrown down the crapper. All the Very Serious People will spend their days coming up with their pony plans, oblivious to the fact that the pony plan is not an option. The Bush administration's plan is the option.

The way it works is that Bush officials decree how things will be, and then everyone -- from Congressional Democrats to the Serious Pundits -- jump uncritically and obediently on board, even if they were on board with the complete opposite approach just days earlier, and then all real dissent vanishes. That's how the country in general works. As Atrios says: "We've seen this game played before."

I don't pretend to know anywhere near enough -- in terms of either raw information or expertise -- in order to opine on the necessity or lack thereof of The Latest Plan in terms of whether the alternatives are worse. But what I do know is that an injustice so grave and extreme that it defies words is taking place; that the greatest beneficiaries are those who are most culpable; and that the same hopelessly broken and deeply rotted institutions and elite class that gave rise to all of this (and so much more) are the very ones that are -- yet again -- being blindly entrusted to solve this.

UPDATE: Here is the current draft for the latest plan. It's elegantly simple. The three key provisions: (1) The Treasury Secretary is authorized to buy up to $700 billion of any mortgage-related assets (so he can just transfer that amount to any corporations in exchange for their worthless or severely crippled "assets") [Sec. 6]; (2) The ceiling on the national debt is raised to $11.3 trillion to accommodate this scheme [Sec. 10]; and (3) best of all: "Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency" [Sec. 8].

Put another way, this authorizes Hank Paulson to transfer $700 billion of taxpayer money to private industry in his sole discretion, and nobody has the right or ability to review or challenge any decision he makes.

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