Never mind Barack Obama�s Audacity of Hope. It�s the
audacity of the banks that takes your breath away. Mean old Mr. Potter in It�s a Wonderful Life seems like Father
Christmas by comparison.
A recent report that Citigroup and Goldman Sachs may have
received preferential treatment getting doses of the swine flu vaccine was
enough to give Ebenezer Scrooge the yips. Then came news that in order for us to
get back the taxpayer bailout money we loaned them, Citigroup is receiving
billions of dollars in tax breaks from the IRS.
And there was a new study last week, �Rewarding Failure,�
from the public interest group Public Citizen, revealing that in the years
leading up to the financial meltdown, the CEOs of the 10 Wall Street giants
that either collapsed or got huge amounts of TARP money were paid an average of
$28.9 million dollars a year.
In 2007, that amounted to 575 times the median income of an
American family. Now, thanks in part to the banks� monumental malfeasance that
led to our economic swan dive, food stamps are now being used to feed one in
eight Americans, and a quarter of all the kids in this country. A new poll from
The New York Times and CBS News reports that more than half of
our unemployed have borrowed money from friends and relatives and have cut back
on medical treatment. The Times wrote
that, �Joblessness has wreaked financial and emotional havoc on the lives of
many of those out of work . . . causing major life changes, mental health
issues and trouble maintaining even basic necessities.�
Yet, according to the non-profit Americans for Financial
Reform, the reported $150 billion that Wall Street is paying itself in
compensation and bonuses this year would be enough to solve the budget crisis
of every one of the 50 states or create millions of jobs or prevent all
foreclosures for four years.
All of this wretched excess is occurring as more and more
people can�t afford a roof over their heads. Foreclosures were up another 5
percent in the third quarter -- 23 percent more than a year ago. Fewer
Americans are willing to buy foreclosed properties, and the Obama
administration�s foreclosure prevention plan has been a bust so far -- way too
timid, critics say, and many of the banks won�t play ball, refusing to
negotiate in good faith with homeowners desperate to hold on.
We got a firsthand look at the crisis last week, when
thousands lined up at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, just a few blocks
from our Manhattan offices, to attend a mortgage assistance event sponsored by
the non-profit Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA). So many
showed up for this leg of the �Save the Dream Tour� that on many days, staff
and volunteers stayed to help until one in the morning.
NACA has had success getting homeowners and banks together
to work out a deal to prevent foreclosure. But the big banks� return to the
government of the TARP bailout money with which we underwrote them over the
last 14 months is a mixed blessing -- great to have the cash returned so
quickly, terrible because any leverage Washington held over the banks because
of the loans virtually vanishes with the payback. They�re back in the saddle
and not inclined to be of much assistance helping anyone else out, especially
those in mortgage trouble.
As Andrew Ross Sorkin of The
New York Times wrote in the wake of President Obama�s meeting last Monday
with Wall Street�s top guns (three of whom failed to show up because of airport
delays), �Executive compensation, leverage limits and lending standards were
all issues that Washington said it planned to change -- and when the taxpayers
were the shareholders of these firms, it probably could have done so. But now
the White House has been left in the position of extending invitations, rather
than exercising its clout. And in the figurative and literal sense, it is
getting stood up.�
Afterwards, Obama said, �The problem is there�s a big gap
between what I�m hearing here in the White House and the activities of
lobbyists on behalf of these institutions or associations of which they�re a
member up on Capitol Hill.�
That�s putting it mildly. Last week, the American Bankers
Association sent out an update and �call to action� memorandum crowing over its
success watering down the bank reform bill that was approved by the House and
urging its members to beat back similar legislation in the Senate.
Self-righteously, it concludes, �As one of your New Year�s resolutions, please
vow to do everything in your power to show, and to have your colleagues in your
bank show, your Senators the right path to true reform.�
It helps when the right path is paved with silver and gold.
As �Crossing Wall Street,� a November report from the Center for Responsive
Politics notes, �The finance, insurance and real estate sector has given $2.3
billion to candidates, leadership PACs and party committees since 1989, which
eclipses every other sector . . .
�The financial sector has also been a voracious lobbying
force, spending an unprecedented $3.8 billion since 1998, while sending an army
of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to make its case. That�s more money than any other
sector has spent on influence peddling. Not even the health care sector, which
spun up a lobbying frenzy this year over health reform, has spent more.�
The banks are making a list and checking it twice. And lest
we forget, during his run for the White House, the finance sector filled Barack
Obama�s stocking with $39.5 million dollars worth of campaign contributions,
more than any other presidential candidate.
God bless us, every one!
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly
public affairs program, Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS. Check
local airtimes or comment at The