Americans believe that the arc of history points towards better times. Built into that belief is a seemingly contradictory pride in learning from the past and a conceit that things were less advanced or less intelligent in the past.
Here’s a great example. After Reconstruction, the Republican party became the de facto governing party of the nation from 1868-1912, with only limited interruption, and a restoration from 1918-1932. In that time, the Republican party enforced a non-legal, non-moral, non-constitutional doctrine with more strength than it did the rights of the people it purportedly fought to liberate in the Civil War.
That doctrine was laissez-faire capitalism. The rapid industrialization of those times came with built-in justifications for letting the “money power” (as they more accurately called it then) do what was in its interest. People, especially people in the South and the Mid-west, didn’t buy it. But the farmers and the nascent unions simply couldn’t match up to the robber barons.
Not realizing that the laissez-faire doctrine was a post-hoc rationalization for greed, people who took the doctrine seriously began to see that there had to be at least some fairness for the God of Markets to work. The Progressive movement of about 100 years ago was thus able to get some laws through, like the Antitrust laws (which actually benefit the economy and business) and child labor laws. That’s about as far as it went.
After the “Great War,” the money power was back in charge. The economy seemed to be doing wonderfully. The US had taken a huge share of the world’s gold at Versailles, but had managed to stay out of the League of Nations and otherwise remain mostly protectionist enough to keep out of the Global Markets that existed before the “Great War.” There was a boom.
People forgot the troubled times. People forgot the Panic of 1907, where America’s economy was saved by J.P. Morgan’s good will (the worry that he might not do it again led to the creation of the Fed).
Blinded by the good times, contemptuous of the old bad times, the rules got lighter and lighter. You could borrow more and more money with less and less collateral (what’s the risk? the market only goes UP!)
Then came the crash. The market plummeted. People’s savings were wiped out in bank failures. The Great Depression. The Great Depression not only was a direct cause of economic misery here, but of the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini, and the conflict and murder they brought with them.
In the US, the money power considered an abortive putsch against FDR (never in the history books, but led to the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, created to resist fascism, but mostly identified with Red scares) but simply didn’t have the steam anymore. Most of FDR’s reform’s passed.
One of them was Glass-Steagall. One of the provisions barred investment banks and commercial banks from being part of the same enterprise. This split the House of Morgan into J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley. Numerous other banking requirements were created, including reserve requirements. The commercial bank’s deposits were insured by the FDIC; the investment banks took risks on their own.
New bank-style entities called savings and loans were created, and helped create the middle class suburbia by offering passbook savings accounts and home mortgages. They had reserve requirements as well.
We won World War II. We put men on the moon. America was moving ahead. We had saved the world and reached for the stars. The west had been subdued. An honest working man could own a home, live the American dream. Times were good.
The memories of the bad times drifted, and the whispering voice of the money power was revived. In the Reagan-era, silly reserve requirements on S&Ls were lifted, allowing them to invest their deposits in riskier investments—it just lowered rates for borrowers and raised them for depositors, right? Remember the Michael Keating? Lincoln Savings & Loan? That was John McCain’s second big tour on the national stage.
The S&Ls collapsed after all of them turned out to have been investing in stuff that was too risky. It was a big part of the down economy of the early 90s that led to Bush I’s ouster. President Clinton sold off the assets of the S&Ls quickly, (The Resolution Trust), but the damage was done.
But memory faded even faster that time. The Cold War was now over. The Peace Dividend. A well-managed economy. A boom! Now if only more of these silly regulations could be lifted, we would truly reach Dow 36,000, just as one book predicted.
By now, average folks’ retirement was at least in part linked to the stock market with 401ks and IRAs. A school-voucheresque poison pill designed to kill another New Deal provision, Social Security.
So, of course we want the market to keep going up—and Robert Rubin, Clinton’s treasury secretary wanted to create the Voltron of finance companies: behold! CITIGROUP! A bank, an insurance company, and an investment bank! Genius—like, that’s never been done before, right?
Led by Phil Gramm, John McCain’s economic policy advisor who told us all to quit whining because his bill has destroyed the economy, the Republican congress passed a repeal of Glass-Steagall. Clinton, in his worst act as president, signed it.
The first fallout of this law breaking down was the Enron-era. With one firm underwriting IPOs and bonds, and also selling them, a conflict of interest was sure to develop. How can we diss a stock? We need the investment banking business! Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson, the California power crisis.
But the reserve requirements were still non-existent. There was still plenty of money out there, and so, let’s put it in the one thing no one can say no to: a house. The American dream. The aim of the old S&L.
Everyone went all in. Real estate. It’s finite. Market will always go up, right? Can’t lose. Who needs safeties? Zero-down. It will always go up.
Nope. Not when people’s wages—wages that have never trickled down, wages that, adjusted for inflation, are lower than they were 30 years ago for most people—can’t support the buying anymore. It all started in places with lower than average wages. Fresno and Stockton and San Bernardino, California. Those places. No one can afford a $500,000 home there, certainly not.
And it all came down. Everyone had atomic pieces of these houses. The creators of these securities did such a good job at spreading risk that it spread everywhere. Banks in Germany failed because of it. No more Lehman Brothers. No more Merril Lynch.
We forgot the past because we didn’t believe that the same rules applied now as they did in those silly old times, when people thought the government could help them.
But they do. That rule is: there is no such thing as the free market. There is no such thing as the invisible hand. What may work at a Turkish bazaar to set prices has nothing to do with how a $12 Trillion dollar economy should be run.
So, is this the logical end of the repeal of Glass-Steagall? Enron and Bear Sterns? or is there more?
There’s more. The wages and the benefits don’t trickle down, but the pain will.
The next phase is huge job losses.