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The Great Recession

The economists were the second to last ones to figure out we’re in a recession. The last one was George Bush himself, but he doesn’t care. He’s been phoning in his job for months now anyway.

But people who were losing their jobs, people who were losing their homes, and all those who’ve seen their retirement accounts lose 40 percent of their value—they all know we’ve been in a recession for some time.

And it’s not just any recession.

This one’s a whopper. It’s likely to be the roughest recession in forty years, at least. And it’s going to last a lot longer than its predecessors.

This is what happens when the idolatry of the free market prevails over common sense, when greed skims over the lessons of 1929.

We wouldn’t be in the Great Recession today if Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin hadn’t deregulated the financial industry.

We wouldn’t be in the Great Recession today if Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson hadn’t let the housing bubble expand to the popping point.

We wouldn’t be in the Great Recession today if the Bush Administration had bailed out homeowners instead of just bankers.
But here we are, right smack in the middle of the Great Recession, and now it’s on Barack Obama’s plate.

At least he’s talking some sense. Since winning the Presidency, Obama has been upfront with the American people about the need to engage in massive deficit spending in 2009 and 2010 to rescue the economy. This is a basic Keynesian prescription, although for many it is a hard medicine to swallow, especially after the debt Bush has run up in Iraq. But swallow we must.

Obama may have to spend between $500 billion and $1 trillion to forestall double-digit unemployment. What he spends that money on is almost as vital as the aggregate amount. Fortunately, he is wisely talking about repairing our infrastructure, sharing money with state governments, and initiating a green jobs program. These expenditures will give us the most bang for the buck, and they will lay the foundation for long-term growth that is not so ruinous to our environment.

Unfortunately, his economic appointments leave a lot to be desired. He could have picked someone like Joseph Stiglitz or James Galbraith or Dean Baker to head the Treasury and the National Economic Council. All have been critics of corporate globalization. All are strong proponents of reregulating financial institutions and reflating the economy.

Instead, he chose Lawrence Summers to head the council and Timothy Geithner to be Treasury Secretary. Both are experienced at ramming free market policies down the throats of other nations. Both were disciples of Robert Rubin when he began to deregulate the financial industry as Clinton’s Treasury Secretary in the late 1990s.

Summers served as chief economist at the World Bank from 1991 to 1993, when it was foisting structural adjustment policies on developing nations. And when he moved over to Treasury, he got Stiglitz fired from the World Bank after the Nobel Prize-winner criticized such policies.

“Spread the truth—the laws of economics are like the laws of engineering,” he said while at the World Bank. “One set of laws works everywhere.” You can find this quote in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, a must-read. She points out how Summers ran roughshod over Russia’s parliament to impose economic shock therapy there in 1993, when he had moved over to Treasury.

“The momentum for Russian reform must be reinvigorated and intensified,” Summers said, after the parliament had refused to go along. Shortly after that comment, the International Monetary Fund threatened to withhold a $1.5 billion loan. So Boris Yeltsin dissolved and attacked parliament, abolished the constitution, and bowed to the IMF’s and Summers’s demands. Summers kept the heat on, demanding that “privatization, stabilization, and liberalization” must all be completed post-haste, Klein reports.
The results were catastrophic. “Russia’s ‘economic reforms’ can claim credit for the impoverishment of seventy-two million people in only eight years,” Klein writes.

Summers also helped knock down Glass-Steagall, the wall erected in the New Deal to keep commercial banks and investment houses separate.

Then as Treasury Secretary, Summers approved the deregulation of the financial industry even further. He and Clinton signed off on the Commodity Futures Modernization Act that removed oversight from the credit default swaps and derivatives trading that have so imperiled our economy.

Summers was Rubin’s disciple. And Timothy Geithner is Summers’s disciple.

Geithner got his start working for Kissinger and Associates, which should be a disqualification in and of itself. So, too, should be working for the IMF for Bush Jr., which Geithner did from 2001 to 2003.

In between, Geithner worked in the Treasury Department under Bush I and Clinton, focusing on international economic affairs. In the late 1990s, he was responsible for overseeing the Asian crisis.

As Klein notes, the Treasury Department “was in no rush to stop the pain.” In fact, it used the crisis in Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand to force them to abandon policies aimed at self-sufficiency and to impose policies that would open those economies to U.S. corporations and banks. Never mind that the dictates of the Treasury Department and IMF inflicted enormous pain. “In South Korea, 300,000 workers were fired every month,” Klein writes. “In 1996, 63.7 percent of South Koreans identified as middle class; by 1999 that number was down to 38.4 percent.”

Since 2003, Geithner has been president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He testified to Congress in March that he couldn’t explain what precipitated the financial instability we’re in right now.

“What produced this is a very complicated mix of factors,” he said. “I don’t think anybody understands it yet.”

That’s either a cop-out or a confession. Maybe he should have just taken the Fifth. Because he’s also been intimately involved with the criminally negligent bank bailouts.

“His easy terms protected shareholders and executives but demanded almost nothing from the failing banks for the public,” William Greider noted in The Nation. “Worst of all, the deals did not work. They have failed to stabilize much of anything and are still putting Wall Street preservation ahead of the national interest. Where is the evidence that we can expect a different approach if Geithner is in charge? Or even that he understands the true dimensions of this crisis?”

Another disturbing appointment by Obama was Peter Orszag to head up the Office of Management and Budget. When he was on the campaign trail, Obama accused John McCain of planning to cut Social Security benefits.
Well, Orszag wants to do that, too.

In 2005, he co-wrote a paper called “Saving Social Security: The Diamond-Orszag Plan.” It calls for “a reduction in benefits, which would apply to all workers age 59 and younger.” The younger you are, the more you’ll get hurt.

“The reduction in benefits for a forty five-year-old average earner is less than 1 percent,” his plan says. “For a thirty-five-year-old, less than 5 percent; and for a twenty-five-year-old, less than 9 percent.”

Social Security is not in crisis. And there’s no reason to be hacking away at the safety net—especially if you’re a Democrat.

Now is the time for a new New Deal, not for ripping up the old one.

At some level, Obama appears to understand that. But his economic team—that’s another story.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild is senior editor of The Progressive magazine.

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