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Commentary

Wall Street's fact-free revisionism

Special To The Washington Post
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 03:04 PM

They say that winners get to write history. Three years after the meltdown of our financial markets, it's clear who is winning and who is losing. Wall Street — arms outstretched in triumph — is racing toward the finish-line tape while millions of American families are struggling to stay on their feet. With victory seemingly in hand, the historical rewrite is in full swing.

The contrast in fortunes between those on top of the economic heap and those buried in the rubble couldn't be starker. The 10 biggest banks now control more than three-quarters of the country's banking assets. Profits have bounced back, while compensation at publicly traded Wall Street firms hit a record $135 billion in 2010.

Meanwhile, more than 24 million Americans are out of work or can't find full-time work, and nearly $9 trillion in household wealth has vanished. There seems to be no correlation between who drove the crisis and who is paying the price.

The report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission detailed the recklessness of the financial industry and the abject failures of policymakers and regulators that brought our economy to its knees in late 2008. The accuracy and facts of the commission's investigative report have gone unchallenged since its release in January.

So, how do you revise the historical narrative when the evidence of what led to economic catastrophe is so overwhelming and the events at issue so recent? You and your political allies just do it. And you bet on the old axiom that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth can tie its shoes.

If you are Rep. Paul Ryan, you ignore the fact that our federal budget deficit has ballooned more than $1 trillion annually since the financial collapse. You disregard the reality that two-thirds of the deficit increase is directly attributable to the economic downturn and bipartisan fiscal measures adopted to bolster the economy. Instead of focusing on the real cause of the deficit, you conflate today's budgetary disaster with the long-term challenges of Medicare so you can shred the social safety net.

If you are Alan Greenspan, you retreat from your 2008 epiphany in which you acknowledged your "state of shocked disbelief" that "the whole intellectual edifice" of your deregulatory ideology had collapsed. Now, you condemn reform efforts as "the current 'anything goes' regulatory ethos" — a phrase that paradoxically recalls your own failed policies at the Federal Reserve. In short, after driving the economy over the cliff, you offer to give driving lessons.

If you are JP Morgan's chief investment officer, you refute the statement that your chairman and chief executive, Jamie Dimon, made to the FCIC in 2010 blaming the failures of major financial institutions on "the management teams 100 percent and . . . no one else." You revise your opinion on the causes of the crisis to instead focus blame on government housing policies. The source for this newfound wisdom: shopworn data, produced by a consultant to the corporate-funded American Enterprise Institute, which was analyzed and debunked by the FCIC report.

If you are most congressional Republicans, you turn a blind eye to the sad history of widespread lending abuses that savaged communities across the country and pledge to block the appointment of anyone to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless its authority is weakened. You ignore the evidence of pervasive excess that wrecked our financial markets and attempt to cut funding for the regulators charged with curbing it. Across the board, you refuse to acknowledge what went wrong and then try to stop efforts to make it right.

Does historical accuracy matter? You bet it does.

Traveling down a road unfettered by facts will take us far from where we need to be: prosecuting financial wrongdoing to deter future malfeasance; vigorously enforcing financial reforms to rein in excessive risk; and rooting out Wall Street's conflicts of interests, abysmal governance and badly flawed compensation incentives.

Worst of all, it will divert us from the urgent task of putting people back to work and creating real wealth for America's future. Over the past decade, we squandered trillions of dollars on rampant speculation rather than on making investments — in technology, infrastructure, clean energy and education — that increase our productivity and economic strength. The financial sector's share of corporate profits climbed from 15 percent in 1980 to 33 percent by the early 2000s, while financial-sector debt soared from $3 trillion in 1978 to $36 trillion by 2007. With tens of millions still unemployed, isn't it time to shift from an economy based on money making money to an economy based on money creating jobs and genuine prosperity?

We can still get history and the future right. But time is running out.


The writer served as chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which conducted the official inquiry into the nation's financial and economic crisis.
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