Weekly Audit: Radical Inequality Fueled the Wall Street Meltdown
by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger
Now that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner isn’t going to impose pay restrictions on bailed out Wall Street executives, it’s critical to remember that severe economic inequality was a major factor in the financial meltdown. Our tax code funnels money into the hands of our wealthiest citizens, which means that our financial system protects the interests of the affluent—not the the average citizen. The broad divergence between our core democratic values and the existing U.S. economic structure must become part of the public debate over financial reform.
As Les Leopold notes in a roundtable discussion with GritTV’s Laura Flanders, much of the Wall Street meltdown can be traced to a steady redistribution of wealth to the wealthy dating back to the Reagan years. Poor people, after all, do not have money to invest in the Wall Street speculation machine. By 2007, the financial world accounted for over 40% of U.S. corporate profits, an astounding percentage for a business intended to facilitate the operation of other industries. According to Leopold, we need to find constructive ways to shrink the financial sector, like taxing Wall Street transactions to move money into the real economy or imposing meaningful pay caps on financial jobs.
Pay for citizens who live outside the executive class has been steadily falling for decades. As Chuck Collins and Sam Pizzigati note for AlterNet, weekly wages for average Americans are now below 1970s levels after adjusting for inflation, while CEO payouts have exploded. So far, President Barack Obama has been hesitant to fight economic inequality at either end of the spectrum. Remember the promises he made to curb extravagant CEO pay on Wall Street back when the AIG bonuses were generating outrage back in February? Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has already made them irrelevant, eliminating a $500,000/year salary cap.
While we’ve heard quite a bit about how Wall Street excess wreaked havoc for homeowners, relatively little attention has been paid to the plight of renters, who often face personal catastrophe when their landlord is foreclosed on. Under a new law passed by Congress, when a bank or new owner takes control over a foreclosed property, they have to give renters living in the home at least 90 days notice before evicting them. But the law does nothing to address other injustices renters face. If your landlord is foreclosed on, for instance, you can forget about getting your security deposit back, even if the house is in top condition.
Banks also are not required to hire property managers to maintain homes they take over, which means they often let houses deteriorate despite objections from tenants. Writing for The Colorado Independent, Martha White explains that these problems are easy to correct, if Congress actually wanted to: Require landlords to put security deposits in a special account that cannot be raided by creditors in bankruptcy and force banks to hire managers to maintain the properties they foreclose on. The latter policy would also discourage banks from foreclosing in the first place by making ownership of the property more expensive for the bank.
Obama recognizes the need for change, which is why he’s proposed a major overhaul of the government’s Wall Street oversight. But in many ways, his plan identifies the wrong problems and offers the wrong solutions. The Real News features a great video spot with commentary by University of Massachusetts at Amherst Economist Robert Pollin. One of the key reforms involves granting the Federal Reserve broad powers to oversee systemic risk in the economy, but the Fed already has similar authority.
"The problem is, the Fed has already had an enormous amount of regulatory power, they just don’t exercise that power," Pollin says.
Instead of granting the Fed more power, we should be finding ways to hold its leaders accountable. By subjecting top officials at the Fed to democratic elections, we could help ensure that the top regulatory body in the U.S. answers to the people it is supposed to be protecting.
Other creative new approaches to combating the economic crisis are featured in the most recent issue of Yes!, which is devoted entirely to economic reforms. From tips on investing locally to overhauling our broken monetary system to empowering workers, the issue emphasizes solutions that rely on democratic structures, rather than the corporate status quo (full disclosure: I’ve got an article in there on community banks).
It’s time to put some political firepower behind those ideas. Ordinary people simply have no serious voice in the policy debate surrounding Wall Street. In The Nation, Christopher Hayes describes the banking lobby’s total domination over financial reform proposals.
"On the other major legislative battles—healthcare, climate change, the Employee Free Choice Act—there is an organized, mobilized permanent infrastructure to push lawmakers in a progressive direction," Hayes writes. "They may be underdogs, but at least it’s a fight."
Changing the too-big-to-fail financial sector must become a priority. If we defer to the banking lobby or advisers like Larry Summers, who helped create the crisis by backing wildly deregulatory laws during the Clinton years, we can guess what the end result will look like. If we want our economy to answer to us, we have to do something about it. Income inequality and unaccountable regulators were a major part of the financial collapse. Addressing those problems has to be part of the economic solution.
This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy.