by Joel Kotkin
The recent passage by Congress of new legislation favourable to loosening controls on risky Wall Street trading is just the most recent example of the consolidation of plutocratic power in Washington. The new rules, written largely by Citibank lobbyists and embraced by the Obama administration, allow large banks to continue using depositors’ money for high-risk investments, the very pattern that helped create the 2008 financial crisis.
This move was supported largely by the establishment in each party. Opposition came from two very different groups: the Tea Party Republicans, who largely represent the views of Main Street businesses, and a residue of old-line progressive social democrats, led by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Support for big finance is no surprise from Republicans, who are used to worshipping at the altar of Wall Street. But the suborning of “progressivism” to Wall Street has been a permanent feature of this administration. From the onset of his presidential run, Barack Obama had strong ties to Wall Street grandees. New York Times Wall Street maven Andrew Ross Sorkin noted in 2008 how Obama had “nailed down the hedge fund vote”.
The ultra-rich so backed the president that, at his first inaugural, noted one sympathetic chronicler, the biggest problem for donors was finding parking space for their private jets. Since then, despite occasional flights of populist rhetoric, the president has kept close ties with top financial firms, including the well-connected Jamie Dimon, chairman of JP Morgan, often called Obama’s “favourite banker”. He appears to have been instrumental in getting Democrats to support the recent loosening of financial controls on big banks.
These Wall Street connections have continued to play dividends for the president, in terms of contributions. The financiers benefited from Obama’s choice of financial managers, such as former treasury secretary Tim Geithner, widely known as a reliable ally of the financial sector. (He liked to explain his support by equating its importance to that of the technology and manufacturing industries.) To no sensible person’s surprise, Geithner, when he left the Treasury last winter, found his reward by joining a large private equity firm. (By way of completing the circle, Geithner’s successor, Jacob Lew, used to work for Citibank.)
The Justice Department has also been cozy with the plutocracy. Attorney general Eric Holder allowed Wall Street a kind of “get out of jail free card” by failing to launch tough prosecutions of the grandees. In contrast to the situation under previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic, the financial plutocrats have not been forced to pay for their numerous depredations. Instead, most prosecutions have been aimed at low-level traders, Ponzi schemers or inside traders.
So if you still think 2008 and the financial crisis changed everything, still think of it as a progressive triumph, think again. Instead of the brave new world of reformed finance, what’s been created in the US is something close to a perfect world, policy-wise, for the plutocrats. The biggest rewards have come from an economic policy, backed by the Federal Reserve and the administration, that has maintained ultra-low interest rates. This has forced investors into the market, at the expense of middle-class savers, particularly the elderly. The steady supply of bond purchases has essentially given free money to those least in need and most likely to do damage to everyone else.
The results make a mockery of the Democrats’ attempts to stoke populist sentiments. In this recovery, the top 1% gained 11% in their incomes while the other 99% experienced, at best, stagnant incomes. As one writer at the Huffington Post put it: “The rising tide has lifted fewer boats during the Obama years – and the ones it’s lifted have been mostly yachts.” If this had occurred during a Republican administration, many progressives would have been horrified. But Democrats, led by New York senator Charles Schumer, Wall Street’s consigliere on the Hill, have been as complicit as Republicans in coddling Wall Street. Democrats, for example, despite their rhetoric about inequality and fairness, have refused to challenge the outrageous discount on taxes for capital gains as opposed to income. A successful professional making $300,000 a year is often taxed at rates twice as high as the rate paid by hedge fund investors, venture capitalists, tech entrepreneurs and Wall Street stock jobbers.
At the same time, the Obama years have been something of a disaster for Main Street, where most Americans work. A 2014 Brookings report revealed that small business “dynamism”, measured by the growth of new firms compared with the closing of older ones, has declined significantly over the past decade, with more firms closing than starting for the first time in a quarter of a century.
Small banks, long a critical source of funding for small businesses, have also been pummeled by the very regulatory regime that also allows mega-banks to enjoy both “too big to fail” protections as well as their sacred right to indulge their most cherished risk-oriented strategies. In 1995, the assets of the six largest bank holding companies accounted for 15% of gross domestic product; by 2011, aided by the massive bailout of “ big banks”, this percentage had soared to 64%.
These trends do much to explain what happened in the recent midterm elections, which saw a massive shift of middle- and working-class voters, especially whites, to the Republicans. Increasingly, Americans suspect that the economic system is rigged against them. By a margin of two to one, according to a 2013 Bloomberg adults feel the American Dream is increasingly out of reach. This pessimism is particularly intense among white working-class voters and large sections of the middle class .
The other major cause for the Democratic demise in November was the low turnout among minority voters. They certainly have ample reason to be indifferent. Both African American and Latino incomes have declined during the current administration, in large part because neither group tends to benefit much from the appreciation of stocks and high-end real estate.
In caving in to Wall Street and its economic priorities, members of both parties have demonstrated where their primary loyalties lie. Amid the obscene levels of compensation going to the financial grandees, it seems the ideal time for politicians, right or left, to challenge Wall Street’s control of Washington. High finance has so devastatingly rocked the world of the middle and working classes. Voters, it might be thought, now need leaders who will take these grandees down a notch or two.
This piece first appeared at The Guardian.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.