Rutger Bregman had not really intended to stick it to the global elite. He never meant to have a pop at the idea that inequality could be solved by philanthropy or inviting Bono to Davos. But when the Dutch historian decided to go off-piste at the World Economic Forum and tell the assembled billionaires they should stop avoiding paying tax, he became an overnight social media sensation.
“It’s been a crazy week and just for stating the obvious,” said Bregman, when asked about a panel discussion at the WEF last month in which he said the issue was “taxes, taxes, taxes, and all the rest is bullshit in my opinion”.
Bregman had not been to Davos before. He was invited on the basis of the book Utopia for Realists, which argued for a basic income and a shorter working week, ideas that have been taken up by some of the Silicon Valley billionaires who show up for the annual event in the Swiss Alps. But he grew more irritated as the week wore on. Bregman gave a speech to a dinner of technology chief executives and then spoke at one of Davos’s private sessions, off limits to journalists. There he was surprised and maddened by the pushback when he mentioned tax. “One American looked at me as if I was from another planet,” he said.
As a result, Bregman decided to change his plan for a panel on inequality organised by Time magazine on the final morning of Davos. “I went to my hotel room and memorised what I wanted to say by heart,” he said.
“I more or less ignored the question asked by the moderator and gave my speech instead. It was mainly to ease my own conscience: someone has to say what needs to be said.”
What Bregman said, put simply, was the Davos emperors have no clothes. They talk a lot about how something must be done about inequality and the need to address social unrest, but cavil at the idea they might be a big part of the problem.
He told his audience that people in Davos talked about participation, justice, equality and transparency, but “nobody raises the issue of tax avoidance and the rich not paying their share. It is like going to a firefighters’ conference and not talking about water.”
Nothing happened over the weekend. Bregman went back to Amsterdam wondering whether his colourful language was a mistake, but then a video of the Time panel went viral, and it has received millions of views on Twitter alone.
Bregman, 30, is not entirely surprised at the reaction. He said he is part of a generation not traumatised by the cold war and radicalised by the financial crisis of a decade ago. “When we say what’s needed are higher taxes and the response is ‘that’s communism’, we say ‘whatever’,” he said.
“I am part of a broad social movement. Ten years ago, it would have unimaginable for some random Dutch historian to go viral when talking about taxes. Yet here we are.”
As a historian, Bregman noted the most successful period for capitalism occurred in the years after the second world war, when the top rate of tax in the US was above 90%.
“This is about saving capitalism,” he said. “Most innovation has come about through government spending. During the golden age period [after the second world war], there were way higher taxes on wealth, property, inheritance and top incomes. That’s what we need today if we are going to tame this beast called capitalism.”
Bregman was born in 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall came down. He grew up in the Dutch city of Zoetermeer, studied history at Utrecht University and contemplated doing a PhD before deciding he was not cut out for a career in academia.
“I didn’t want to waste four years on an insignificant subject nobody cares about,” he said. Instead, the global financial crisis pushed him in a different direction.
“I thought that we needed historians to take the stage and explain what’s going on. When I watched the crisis on TV, the only people being interviewed were economists, and these were the guys that didn’t see it coming. I thought that we needed some historians there, so I left academia,” Bregman said.
He spent a year working on a left-of-centre Dutch paper before joining a new journalism platform that paid him a basic income and provided the freedom to write about anything he chose. Utopia for Realists was the result.
Bregman is working on a new book in which he intends to challenge the view that humans are inherently selfish. It is not true, he said, that people revert to their true, nasty selves when the thin veneer of civilisation is stripped away.
“If we assume the best in people, we can radically redesign our democracy and welfare states,” he said.
Bregman bridles at being called an optimist. “I prefer the word possibilist,” he said. Optimists are the sort of chief executives found at Davos, who think globalisation is working, neoliberalism is a good idea and inequality is on the decline, he added.
“A lot of great things are going on. In many ways, the past 30 years have been the best in world history. But we can do much better. I prefer the word hope over optimism,” Bregman added.
So would he make a return visit to the WEF next year?
“I would definitely go. I would just give the same speech. It is going to be a dilemma for them. If they don’t invite me, it will prove my point. If they do, I’ll say the same thing all over again,” he said.
This piece is about one of the biggest taboos of our times. About a truth that is seldom acknowledged, and yet – on reflection – cannot be denied. The truth that we are living in an inverse welfare state.
These days, politicians from the left to the right assume that most wealth is created at the top. By the visionaries, by the job creators, and by the people who have “made it”. By the go-getters oozing talent and entrepreneurialism that are helping to advance the whole world.
Now, we may disagree about the extent to which success deserves to be rewarded – the philosophy of the left is that the strongest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden, while the right fears high taxes will blunt enterprise – but across the spectrum virtually all agree that wealth is created primarily at the top.
So entrenched is this assumption that it’s even embedded in our language. When economists talk about “productivity”, what they really mean is the size of your paycheck. And when we use terms like “welfare state”, “redistribution” and “solidarity”, we’re implicitly subscribing to the view that there are two strata: the makers and the takers, the producers and the couch potatoes, the hardworking citizens – and everybody else.
In reality, it is precisely the other way around. In reality, it is the waste collectors, the nurses, and the cleaners whose shoulders are supporting the apex of the pyramid. They are the true mechanism of social solidarity. Meanwhile, a growing share of those we hail as “successful” and “innovative” are earning their wealth at the expense of others. The people getting the biggest handouts are not down around the bottom, but at the very top. Yet their perilous dependence on others goes unseen. Almost no one talks about it. Even for politicians on the left, it’s a non-issue.
To understand why, we need to recognise that there are two ways of making money. The first is what most of us do: work. That means tapping into our knowledge and know-how (our “human capital” in economic terms) to create something new, whether that’s a takeout app, a wedding cake, a stylish updo, or a perfectly poured pint. To work is to create. Ergo, to work is to create new wealth.
But there is also a second way to make money. That’s the rentier way: by leveraging control over something that already exists, such as land, knowledge, or money, to increase your wealth. You produce nothing, yet profit nonetheless. By definition, the rentier makes his living at others’ expense, using his power to claim economic benefit.
For those who know their history, the term “rentier” conjures associations with heirs to estates, such as the 19th century’s large class of useless rentiers, well-described by the French economist Thomas Piketty. These days, that class is making a comeback. (Ironically, however, conservative politicians adamantly defend the rentier’s right to lounge around, deeming inheritance tax to be the height of unfairness.) But there are also other ways of rent-seeking. From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, from big pharma to the lobby machines in Washington and Westminster, zoom in and you’ll see rentiers everywhere.
There is no longer a sharp dividing line between working and rentiering. In fact, the modern-day rentier often works damn hard. Countless people in the financial sector, for example, apply great ingenuity and effort to amass “rent” on their wealth. Even the big innovations of our age – businesses like Facebook and Uber – are interested mainly in expanding the rentier economy. The problem with most rich people therefore is not that they are coach potatoes. Many a CEO toils 80 hours a week to multiply his allowance. It’s hardly surprising, then, that they feel wholly entitled to their wealth.
It may take quite a mental leap to see our economy as a system that shows solidarity with the rich rather than the poor. So I’ll start with the clearest illustration of modern freeloaders at the top: bankers. Studies conducted by the International Monetary Fund and the Bank for International Settlements– not exactly leftist thinktanks – have revealed that much of the financial sector has become downright parasitic. How instead of creating wealth, they gobble it up whole.
Don’t get me wrong. Banks can help to gauge risks and get money where it is needed, both of which are vital to a well-functioning economy. But consider this: economists tell us that the optimum level of total private-sector debt is 100% of GDP. Based on this equation, if the financial sector only grows, it won’t equal more wealth, but less. So here’s the bad news. In the United Kingdom, private-sector debt is now at 157.5%. In the United States, the figure is 188.8%.
In other words, a big part of the modern banking sector is essentially a giant tapeworm gorging on a sick body. It’s not creating anything new, merely sucking others dry. Bankers have found a hundred and one ways to accomplish this. The basic mechanism, however, is always the same: offer loans like it’s going out of style, which in turn inflates the price of things like houses and shares, then earn a tidy percentage off those overblown prices (in the form of interest, commissions, brokerage fees, or what have you), and if the shit hits the fan, let Uncle Sam mop it up.
The financial innovation concocted by all the math whizzes working in modern banking (instead of at universities or companies that contribute to real prosperity) basically boils down to maximising the total amount of debt. And debt, of course, is a means of earning rent. So for those who believe that pay ought to be proportionate to the value of work, the conclusion we have to draw is that many bankers should be earning a negative salary; a fine, if you will, for destroying more wealth than they create.
Bankers are the most obvious class of closet freeloaders, but they are certainly not alone. Many a lawyer and an accountant wields a similar revenue model. Take tax evasion. Untold hardworking, academically degreed professionals make a good living at the expense of the populations of other countries. Or take the tide of privatisations over the past three decades, which have been all but a carte blanche for rentiers. One of the richest people in the world, Carlos Slim, earned his millions by obtaining a monopoly of the Mexican telecom market and then hiking prices sky high. The same goes for the Russian oligarchs who rose after the Berlin Wall fell, who bought up valuable state-owned assets for song to live off the rent.
But here comes the rub. Most rentiers are not as easily identified as the greedy banker or manager. Many are disguised. On the face of it, they look like industrious folks, because for part of the time they really are doing something worthwhile. Precisely that makes us overlook their massive rent-seeking.
Take the pharmaceutical industry. Companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer regularly unveil new drugs, yet most real medical breakthroughs are made quietly at government-subsidised labs. Private companies mostly manufacture medications that resemble what we’ve already got. They get it patented and, with a hefty dose of marketing, a legion of lawyers, and a strong lobby, can live off the profits for years. In other words, the vast revenues of the pharmaceutical industry are the result of a tiny pinch of innovation and fistfuls of rent.
Even paragons of modern progress like Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb are woven from the fabric of rentierism. Firstly, because they owe their existence to government discoveries and inventions (every sliver of fundamental technology in the iPhone, from the internet to batteries and from touchscreens to voice recognition, was invented by researchers on the government payroll). And second, because they tie themselves into knots to avoid paying taxes, retaining countless bankers, lawyers, and lobbyists for this very purpose.
Even more important, many of these companies function as “natural monopolies”, operating in a positive feedback loop of increasing growth and value as more and more people contribute free content to their platforms. Companies like this are incredibly difficult to compete with, because as they grow bigger, they only get stronger.
Aptly characterising this “platform capitalism” in an article, Tom Goodwin writes: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”
So what do these companies own? A platform. A platform that lots and lots of people want to use. Why? First and foremost, because they’re cool and they’re fun – and in that respect, they do offer something of value. However, the main reason why we’re all happy to hand over free content to Facebook is because all of our friends are on Facebook too, because their friends are on Facebook … because their friends are on Facebook.
Most of Mark Zuckerberg’s income is just rent collected off the millions of picture and video posts that we give away daily for free. And sure, we have fun doing it. But we also have no alternative – after all, everybody is on Facebook these days. Zuckerberg has a website that advertisers are clamouring to get onto, and that doesn’t come cheap. Don’t be fooled by endearing pilots with free internet in Zambia. Stripped down to essentials, it’s an ordinary ad agency. In fact, in 2015 Google and Facebook pocketed an astounding 64% of all online ad revenue in the US.
But don’t Google and Facebook make anything useful at all? Sure they do. The irony, however, is that their best innovations only make the rentier economy even bigger. They employ scores of programmers to create new algorithms so that we’ll all click on more and more ads. Uber has usurped the whole taxi sector just as Airbnb has upended the hotel industry and Amazon has overrun the book trade. The bigger such platforms grow the more powerful they become, enabling the lords of these digital feudalities to demand more and more rent.
Think back a minute to the definition of a rentier: someone who uses their control over something that already exists in order to increase their own wealth. The feudal lord of medieval times did that by building a tollgate along a road and making everybody who passed by pay. Today’s tech giants are doing basically the same thing, but transposed to the digital highway. Using technology funded by taxpayers, they build tollgates between you and other people’s free content and all the while pay almost no tax on their earnings.
This is the so-called innovation that has Silicon Valley gurus in raptures: ever bigger platforms that claim ever bigger handouts. So why do we accept this? Why does most of the population work itself to the bone to support these rentiers?
I think there are two answers. Firstly, the modern rentier knows to keep a low profile. There was a time when everybody knew who was freeloading. The king, the church, and the aristocrats controlled almost all the land and made peasants pay dearly to farm it. But in the modern economy, making rentierism work is a great deal more complicated. How many people can explain a credit default swap, or a collateralised debt obligation? Or the revenue model behind those cute Google Doodles? And don’t the folks on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley work themselves to the bone, too? Well then, they must be doing something useful, right?
Maybe not. The typical workday of Goldman Sachs’ CEO may be worlds away from that of King Louis XIV, but their revenue models both essentially revolve around obtaining the biggest possible handouts. “The world’s most powerful investment bank,” wrote the journalist Matt Taibbi about Goldman Sachs, “is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
But far from squids and vampires, the average rich freeloader manages to masquerade quite successfully as a decent hard worker. He goes to great lengths to present himself as a “job creator” and an “investor” who “earns” his income by virtue of his high “productivity”. Most economists, journalists, and politicians from left to right are quite happy to swallow this story. Time and again language is twisted around to cloak funneling and exploitation as creation and generation.
However, it would be wrong to think that all this is part of some ingenious conspiracy. Many modern rentiers have convinced even themselves that they are bona fide value creators. When current Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein was asked about the purpose of his job, his straight-faced answer was that he is “doing God’s work”. The Sun King would have approved.
The second thing that keeps rentiers safe is even more insidious. We’re all wannabe rentiers. They have made millions of people complicit in their revenue model. Consider this: What are our financial sector’s two biggest cash cows? Answer: the housing market and pensions. Both are markets in which many of us are deeply invested.
Recent decades have seen more and more people contract debts to buy a home, and naturally it’s in their interest if house prices continue to scale new heights (read: burst bubble upon bubble). The same goes for pensions. Over the past few decades we’ve all scrimped and saved up a mountainous pension piggy bank. Now pension funds are under immense pressure to ally with the biggest exploiters in order to ensure they pay out enough to please their investors.
The fact of the matter is that feudalism has been democratised. To a lesser or greater extent, we are all depending on handouts. En masse, we have been made complicit in this exploitation by the rentier elite, resulting in a political covenant between the rich rent-seekers and the homeowners and retirees.
Don’t get me wrong, most homeowners and retirees are not benefiting from this situation. On the contrary, the banks are bleeding them far beyond the extent to which they themselves profit from their houses and pensions. Still, it’s hard to point fingers at a kleptomaniac when you have sticky fingers too.
So why is this happening? The answer can be summed up in three little words: Because it can.
Rentierism is, in essence, a question of power. That the Sun King Louis XIV was able to exploit millions was purely because he had the biggest army in Europe. It’s no different for the modern rentier. He’s got the law, politicians and journalists squarely in his court. That’s why bankers get fined peanuts for preposterous fraud, while a mother on government assistance gets penalised within an inch of her life if she checks the wrong box.
The biggest tragedy of all, however, is that the rentier economy is gobbling up society’s best and brightest. Where once upon a time Ivy League graduates chose careers in science, public service or education, these days they are more likely to opt for banks, law firms, or trumped up ad agencies like Google and Facebook. When you think about it, it’s insane. We are forking over billions in taxes to help our brightest minds on and up the corporate ladder so they can learn how to score ever more outrageous handouts.
One thing is certain: countries where rentiers gain the upper hand gradually fall into decline. Just look at the Roman Empire. Or Venice in the 15th century. Look at the Dutch Republic in the 18th century. Like a parasite stunts a child’s growth, so the rentier drains a country of its vitality.
What innovation remains in a rentier economy is mostly just concerned with further bolstering that very same economy. This may explain why the big dreams of the 1970s, like flying cars, curing cancer, and colonising Mars, have yet to be realised, while bankers and ad-makers have at their fingertips technologies a thousand times more powerful.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Tollgates can be torn down, financial products can be banned, tax havens dismantled, lobbies tamed, and patents rejected. Higher taxes on the ultra-rich can make rentierism less attractive, precisely because society’s biggest freeloaders are at the very top of the pyramid. And we can more fairly distribute our earnings on land, oil, and innovation through a system of, say, employee shares, or a universal basic income.
But such a revolution will require a wholly different narrative about the origins of our wealth. It will require ditching the old-fashioned faith in “solidarity” with a miserable underclass that deserves to be borne aloft on the market-level salaried shoulders of society’s strongest. All we need to do is to give real hard-working people what they deserve.
And, yes, by that I mean the waste collectors, the nurses, the cleaners – theirs are the shoulders that carry us all.
The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.
By now, most of us know the major players. As George Bush’s last Treasury secretary, former Goldman CEO Henry Paulson was the architect of the bailout, a suspiciously self-serving plan to funnel trillions of Your Dollars to a handful of his old friends on Wall Street. Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s former Treasury secretary, spent 26 years at Goldman before becoming chairman of Citigroup — which in turn got a $300 billion taxpayer bailout from Paulson. There’s John Thain, the asshole chief of Merrill Lynch who bought an $87,000 area rug for his office as his company was imploding; a former Goldman banker, Thain enjoyed a multi-billion-dollar handout from Paulson, who used billions in taxpayer funds to help Bank of America rescue Thain’s sorry company. And Robert Steel, the former Goldmanite head of Wachovia, scored himself and his fellow executives $225 million in golden-parachute payments as his bank was self-destructing. There’s Joshua Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff during the bailout, and Mark Patterson, the current Treasury chief of staff, who was a Goldman lobbyist just a year ago, and Ed Liddy, the former Goldman director whom Paulson put in charge of bailed-out insurance giant AIG, which forked over $13 billion to Goldman after Liddy came on board. The heads of the Canadian and Italian national banks are Goldman alums, as is the head of the World Bank, the head of the New York Stock Exchange, the last two heads of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — which, incidentally, is now in charge of overseeing Goldman — not to mention …
But then, any attempt to construct a narrative around all the former Goldmanites in influential positions quickly becomes an absurd and pointless exercise, like trying to make a list of everything. What you need to know is the big picture: If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain — an extremely unfortunate loophole in the system of Western democratic capitalism, which never foresaw that in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.
The bank’s unprecedented reach and power have enabled it to turn all of America into a giant pump-and-dump scam, manipulating whole economic sectors for years at a time, moving the dice game as this or that market collapses, and all the time gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere — high gas prices, rising consumer credit rates, half-eaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts. All that money that you’re losing, it’s going somewhere, and in both a literal and a figurative sense, Goldman Sachs is where it’s going: The bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.
They achieve this using the same playbook over and over again. The formula is relatively simple: Goldman positions itself in the middle of a speculative bubble, selling investments they know are crap. Then they hoover up vast sums from the middle and lower floors of society with the aid of a crippled and corrupt state that allows it to rewrite the rules in exchange for the relative pennies the bank throws at political patronage. Finally, when it all goes bust, leaving millions of ordinary citizens broke and starving, they begin the entire process over again, riding in to rescue us all by lending us back our own money at interest, selling themselves as men above greed, just a bunch of really smart guys keeping the wheels greased. They’ve been pulling this same stunt over and over since the 1920s — and now they’re preparing to do it again, creating what may be the biggest and most audacious bubble yet.
If you want to understand how we got into this financial crisis, you have to first understand where all the money went — and in order to understand that, you need to understand what Goldman has already gotten away with. It is a history exactly five bubbles long — including last year’s strange and seemingly inexplicable spike in the price of oil. There were a lot of losers in each of those bubbles, and in the bailout that followed. But Goldman wasn’t one of them.
BUBBLE #1 The Great Depression
Goldman wasn’t always a too-big-to-fail Wall Street behemoth, the ruthless face of kill-or-be-killed capitalism on steroids —just almost always. The bank was actually founded in 1869 by a German immigrant named Marcus Goldman, who built it up with his son-in-law Samuel Sachs. They were pioneers in the use of commercial paper, which is just a fancy way of saying they made money lending out short-term IOUs to smalltime vendors in downtown Manhattan.
You can probably guess the basic plotline of Goldman’s first 100 years in business: plucky, immigrant-led investment bank beats the odds, pulls itself up by its bootstraps, makes shitloads of money. In that ancient history there’s really only one episode that bears scrutiny now, in light of more recent events: Goldman’s disastrous foray into the speculative mania of pre-crash Wall Street in the late 1920s.
This great Hindenburg of financial history has a few features that might sound familiar. Back then, the main financial tool used to bilk investors was called an “investment trust.” Similar to modern mutual funds, the trusts took the cash of investors large and small and (theoretically, at least) invested it in a smorgasbord of Wall Street securities, though the securities and amounts were often kept hidden from the public. So a regular guy could invest $10 or $100 in a trust and feel like he was a big player. Much as in the 1990s, when new vehicles like day trading and e-trading attracted reams of new suckers from the sticks who wanted to feel like big shots, investment trusts roped a new generation of regular-guy investors into the speculation game.
Beginning a pattern that would repeat itself over and over again, Goldman got into the investment trust game late, then jumped in with both feet and went hogwild. The first effort was the Goldman Sachs Trading Corporation; the bank issued a million shares at $100 apiece, bought all those shares with its own money and then sold 90 percent of them to the hungry public at $104. The trading corporation then relentlessly bought shares in itself, bidding the price up further and further. Eventually it dumped part of its holdings and sponsored a new trust, the Shenandoah Corporation, issuing millions more in shares in that fund — which in turn sponsored yet another trust called the Blue Ridge Corporation. In this way, each investment trust served as a front for an endless investment pyramid: Goldman hiding behind Goldman hiding behind Goldman. Of the 7,250,000 initial shares of Blue Ridge, 6,250,000 were actually owned by Shenandoah — which, of course, was in large part owned by Goldman Trading.
The end result (ask yourself if this sounds familiar) was a daisy chain of borrowed money, one exquisitely vulnerable to a decline in performance anywhere along the line. The basic idea isn’t hard to follow. You take a dollar and borrow nine against it; then you take that $10 fund and borrow $90; then you take your $100 fund and, so long as the public is still lending, borrow and invest $900. If the last fund in the line starts to lose value, you no longer have the money to pay back your investors, and everyone gets massacred.
In a chapter from The Great Crash, 1929 titled “In Goldman Sachs We Trust,” the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith held up the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah trusts as classic examples of the insanity of leverage-based investment. The trusts, he wrote, were a major cause of the market’s historic crash; in today’s dollars, the losses the bank suffered totaled $475 billion. “It is difficult not to marvel at the imagination which was implicit in this gargantuan insanity,” Galbraith observed, sounding like Keith Olbermann in an ascot. “If there must be madness, something may be said for having it on a heroic scale.”
BUBBLE #2 Tech Stocks
Fast-forward about 65 years. Goldman not only survived the crash that wiped out so many of the investors it duped, it went on to become the chief underwriter to the country’s wealthiest and most powerful corporations. Thanks to Sidney Weinberg, who rose from the rank of janitor’s assistant to head the firm, Goldman became the pioneer of the initial public offering, one of the principal and most lucrative means by which companies raise money. During the 1970s and 1980s, Goldman may not have been the planet-eating Death Star of political influence it is today, but it was a top-drawer firm that had a reputation for attracting the very smartest talent on the Street.
It also, oddly enough, had a reputation for relatively solid ethics and a patient approach to investment that shunned the fast buck; its executives were trained to adopt the firm’s mantra, “long-term greedy.” One former Goldman banker who left the firm in the early Nineties recalls seeing his superiors give up a very profitable deal on the grounds that it was a long-term loser. “We gave back money to ‘grownup’ corporate clients who had made bad deals with us,” he says. “Everything we did was legal and fair — but ‘long-term greedy’ said we didn’t want to make such a profit at the clients’ collective expense that we spoiled the marketplace.”
But then, something happened. It’s hard to say what it was exactly; it might have been the fact that Goldman’s cochairman in the early Nineties, Robert Rubin, followed Bill Clinton to the White House, where he directed the National Economic Council and eventually became Treasury secretary. While the American media fell in love with the story line of a pair of baby-boomer, Sixties-child, Fleetwood Mac yuppies nesting in the White House, it also nursed an undisguised crush on Rubin, who was hyped as without a doubt the smartest person ever to walk the face of the Earth, with Newton, Einstein, Mozart and Kant running far behind.
Rubin was the prototypical Goldman banker. He was probably born in a $4,000 suit, he had a face that seemed permanently frozen just short of an apology for being so much smarter than you, and he exuded a Spock-like, emotion-neutral exterior; the only human feeling you could imagine him experiencing was a nightmare about being forced to fly coach. It became almost a national clichè that whatever Rubin thought was best for the economy — a phenomenon that reached its apex in 1999, when Rubin appeared on the cover of Time with his Treasury deputy, Larry Summers, and Fed chief Alan Greenspan under the headline The Committee To Save The World. And “what Rubin thought,” mostly, was that the American economy, and in particular the financial markets, were over-regulated and needed to be set free. During his tenure at Treasury, the Clinton White House made a series of moves that would have drastic consequences for the global economy — beginning with Rubin’s complete and total failure to regulate his old firm during its first mad dash for obscene short-term profits.
The basic scam in the Internet Age is pretty easy even for the financially illiterate to grasp. Companies that weren’t much more than pot-fueled ideas scrawled on napkins by up-too-late bongsmokers were taken public via IPOs, hyped in the media and sold to the public for mega-millions. It was as if banks like Goldman were wrapping ribbons around watermelons, tossing them out 50-story windows and opening the phones for bids. In this game you were a winner only if you took your money out before the melon hit the pavement.
It sounds obvious now, but what the average investor didn’t know at the time was that the banks had changed the rules of the game, making the deals look better than they actually were. They did this by setting up what was, in reality, a two-tiered investment system — one for the insiders who knew the real numbers, and another for the lay investor who was invited to chase soaring prices the banks themselves knew were irrational. While Goldman’s later pattern would be to capitalize on changes in the regulatory environment, its key innovation in the Internet years was to abandon its own industry’s standards of quality control.
“Since the Depression, there were strict underwriting guidelines that Wall Street adhered to when taking a company public,” says one prominent hedge-fund manager. “The company had to be in business for a minimum of five years, and it had to show profitability for three consecutive years. But Wall Street took these guidelines and threw them in the trash.” Goldman completed the snow job by pumping up the sham stocks: “Their analysts were out there sayingis worth $100 a share.”
The problem was, nobody told investors that the rules had changed. “Everyone on the inside knew,” the manager says. “Bob Rubin sure as hell knew what the underwriting standards were. They’d been intact since the 1930s.”
Jay Ritter, a professor of finance at the University of Florida who specializes in IPOs, says banks like Goldman knew full well that many of the public offerings they were touting would never make a dime. “In the early Eighties, the major underwriters insisted on three years of profitability. Then it was one year, then it was a quarter. By the time of the Internet bubble, they were not even requiring profitability in the foreseeable future.”
Goldman has denied that it changed its underwriting standards during the Internet years, but its own statistics belie the claim. Just as it did with the investment trust in the 1920s, Goldman started slow and finished crazy in the Internet years. After it took a little-known company with weak financials called Yahoo! public in 1996, once the tech boom had already begun, Goldman quickly became the IPO king of the Internet era. Of the 24 companies it took public in 1997, a third were losing money at the time of the IPO. In 1999, at the height of the boom, it took 47 companies public, including stillborns like Webvan and eToys, investment offerings that were in many ways the modern equivalents of Blue Ridge and Shenandoah. The following year, it underwrote 18 companies in the first four months, 14 of which were money losers at the time. As a leading underwriter of Internet stocks during the boom, Goldman provided profits far more volatile than those of its competitors: In 1999, the average Goldman IPO leapt 281 percent above its offering price, compared to the Wall Street average of 181 percent.
How did Goldman achieve such extraordinary results? One answer is that they used a practice called “laddering,” which is just a fancy way of saying they manipulated the share price of new offerings. Here’s how it works: Say you’re Goldman Sachs, andcomes to you and asks you to take their company public. You agree on the usual terms: You’ll price the stock, determine how many shares should be released and take the CEO on a “road show” to schmooze investors, all in exchange for a substantial fee (typically six to seven percent of the amount raised). You then promise your best clients the right to buy big chunks of the IPO at the low offering price — let’s say starting share price is $15 — in exchange for a promise that they will buy more shares later on the open market. That seemingly simple demand gives you inside knowledge of the IPO’s future, knowledge that wasn’t disclosed to the day trader schmucks who only had the prospectus to go by: You know that certain of your clients who bought X amount of shares at $15 are also going to buy Y more shares at $20 or $25, virtually guaranteeing that the price is going to go to $25 and beyond. In this way, Goldman could artificially jack up the new company’s price, which of course was to the bank’s benefit — a six percent fee of a $500 million IPO is serious money.
Goldman was repeatedly sued by shareholders for engaging in laddering in a variety of Internet IPOs, including Webvan and NetZero. The deceptive practices also caught the attention of Nicholas Maier, the syndicate manager of Cramer & Co., the hedge fund run at the time by the now-famous chattering television asshole Jim Cramer, himself a Goldman alum. Maier told the SEC that while working for Cramer between 1996 and 1998, he was repeatedly forced to engage in laddering practices during IPO deals with Goldman.
“Goldman, from what I witnessed, they were the worst perpetrator,” Maier said. “They totally fueled the bubble. And it’s specifically that kind of behavior that has caused the market crash. They built these stocks upon an illegal foundation — manipulated up — and ultimately, it really was the small person who ended up buying in.” In 2005, Goldman agreed to pay $40 million for its laddering violations — a puny penalty relative to the enormous profits it made. (Goldman, which has denied wrongdoing in all of the cases it has settled, refused to respond to questions for this story.)
Another practice Goldman engaged in during the Internet boom was “spinning,” better known as bribery. Here the investment bank would offer the executives of the newly public company shares at extra-low prices, in exchange for future underwriting business. Banks that engaged in spinning would then undervalue the initial offering price — ensuring that those “hot” opening-price shares it had handed out to insiders would be more likely to rise quickly, supplying bigger first-day rewards for the chosen few. So instead ofopening at $20, the bank would approach the CEO and offer him a million shares of his own company at $18 in exchange for future business — effectively robbing all of Bullshit’s new shareholders by diverting cash that should have gone to the company’s bottom line into the private bank account of the company’s CEO.
In one case, Goldman allegedly gave a multimillion-dollar special offering to eBay CEO Meg Whitman, who later joined Goldman’s board, in exchange for future i-banking business. According to a report by the House Financial Services Committee in 2002, Goldman gave special stock offerings to executives in 21 companies that it took public, including Yahoo! cofounder Jerry Yang and two of the great slithering villains of the financial-scandal age — Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski and Enron’s Ken Lay. Goldman angrily denounced the report as “an egregious distortion of the facts” — shortly before paying $110 million to settle an investigation into spinning and other manipulations launched by New York state regulators. “The spinning of hot IPO shares was not a harmless corporate perk,” then-attorney general Eliot Spitzer said at the time. “Instead, it was an integral part of a fraudulent scheme to win new investment-banking business.”
Such practices conspired to turn the Internet bubble into one of the greatest financial disasters in world history: Some $5 trillion of wealth was wiped out on the NASDAQ alone. But the real problem wasn’t the money that was lost by shareholders, it was the money gained by investment bankers, who received hefty bonuses for tampering with the market. Instead of teaching Wall Street a lesson that bubbles always deflate, the Internet years demonstrated to bankers that in the age of freely flowing capital and publicly owned financial companies, bubbles are incredibly easy to inflate, and individual bonuses are actually bigger when the mania and the irrationality are greater.
Nowhere was this truer than at Goldman. Between 1999 and 2002, the firm paid out $28.5 billion in compensation and benefits — an average of roughly $350,000 a year per employee. Those numbers are important because the key legacy of the Internet boom is that the economy is now driven in large part by the pursuit of the enormous salaries and bonuses that such bubbles make possible. Goldman’s mantra of “long-term greedy” vanished into thin air as the game became about getting your check before the melon hit the pavement.
The market was no longer a rationally managed place to grow real, profitable businesses: It was a huge ocean of Someone Else’s Money where bankers hauled in vast sums through whatever means necessary and tried to convert that money into bonuses and payouts as quickly as possible. If you laddered and spun 50 Internet IPOs that went bust within a year, so what? By the time the Securities and Exchange Commission got around to fining your firm $110 million, the yacht you bought with your IPO bonuses was already six years old. Besides, you were probably out of Goldman by then, running the U.S. Treasury or maybe the state of New Jersey. (One of the truly comic moments in the history of America’s recent financial collapse came when Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who ran Goldman from 1994 to 1999 and left with $320 million in IPO-fattened stock, insisted in 2002 that “I’ve never even heard the term ‘laddering’ before.”)
For a bank that paid out $7 billion a year in salaries, $110 million fines issued half a decade late were something far less than a deterrent —they were a joke. Once the Internet bubble burst, Goldman had no incentive to reassess its new, profit-driven strategy; it just searched around for another bubble to inflate. As it turns out, it had one ready, thanks in large part to Rubin.
BUBBLE #3 The Housing Craze
Goldman’s role in the sweeping global disaster that was the housing bubble is not hard to trace. Here again, the basic trick was a decline in underwriting standards, although in this case the standards weren’t in IPOs but in mortgages. By now almost everyone knows that for decades mortgage dealers insisted that home buyers be able to produce a down payment of 10 percent or more, show a steady income and good credit rating, and possess a real first and last name. Then, at the dawn of the new millennium, they suddenly threw all that shit out the window and started writing mortgages on the backs of napkins to cocktail waitresses and ex-cons carrying five bucks and a Snickers bar.
None of that would have been possible without investment bankers like Goldman, who created vehicles to package those shitty mortgages and sell them en masse to unsuspecting insurance companies and pension funds. This created a mass market for toxic debt that would never have existed before; in the old days, no bank would have wanted to keep some addict ex-con’s mortgage on its books, knowing how likely it was to fail. You can’t write these mortgages, in other words, unless you can sell them to someone who doesn’t know what they are.
Goldman used two methods to hide the mess they were selling. First, they bundled hundreds of different mortgages into instruments called Collateralized Debt Obligations. Then they sold investors on the idea that, because a bunch of those mortgages would turn out to be OK, there was no reason to worry so much about the shitty ones: The CDO, as a whole, was sound. Thus, junk-rated mortgages were turned into AAA-rated investments. Second, to hedge its own bets, Goldman got companies like AIG to provide insurance — known as credit default swaps — on the CDOs. The swaps were essentially a racetrack bet between AIG and Goldman: Goldman is betting the ex-cons will default, AIG is betting they won’t.
There was only one problem with the deals: All of the wheeling and dealing represented exactly the kind of dangerous speculation that federal regulators are supposed to rein in. Derivatives like CDOs and credit swaps had already caused a series of serious financial calamities: Procter & Gamble and Gibson Greetings both lost fortunes, and Orange County, California, was forced to default in 1994. A report that year by the Government Accountability Office recommended that such financial instruments be tightly regulated — and in 1998, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, a woman named Brooksley Born, agreed. That May, she circulated a letter to business leaders and the Clinton administration suggesting that banks be required to provide greater disclosure in derivatives trades, and maintain reserves to cushion against losses.
More regulation wasn’t exactly what Goldman had in mind. “The banks go crazy — they want it stopped,” says Michael Greenberger, who worked for Born as director of trading and markets at the CFTC and is now a law professor at the University of Maryland. “Greenspan, Summers, Rubin and [SEC chief Arthur] Levitt want it stopped.”
Clinton’s reigning economic foursome — “especially Rubin,” according to Greenberger — called Born in for a meeting and pleaded their case. She refused to back down, however, and continued to push for more regulation of the derivatives. Then, in June 1998, Rubin went public to denounce her move, eventually recommending that Congress strip the CFTC of its regulatory authority. In 2000, on its last day in session, Congress passed the now-notorious Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which had been inserted into an 11,000-page spending bill at the last minute, with almost no debate on the floor of the Senate. Banks were now free to trade default swaps with impunity.
But the story didn’t end there. AIG, a major purveyor of default swaps, approached the New York State Insurance Department in 2000 and asked whether default swaps would be regulated as insurance. At the time, the office was run by one Neil Levin, a former Goldman vice president, who decided against regulating the swaps. Now freed to underwrite as many housing-based securities and buy as much credit-default protection as it wanted, Goldman went berserk with lending lust. By the peak of the housing boom in 2006, Goldman was underwriting $76.5 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities — a third of which were sub-prime — much of it to institutional investors like pensions and insurance companies. And in these massive issues of real estate were vast swamps of crap.
Take one $494 million issue that year, GSAMP Trust 2006S3. Many of the mortgages belonged to second-mortgage borrowers, and the average equity they had in their homes was 0.71 percent. Moreover, 58 percent of the loans included little or no documentation — no names of the borrowers, no addresses of the homes, just zip codes. Yet both of the major ratings agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, rated 93 percent of the issue as investment grade. Moody’s projected that less than 10 percent of the loans would default. In reality, 18 percent of the mortgages were in default within 18 months.
Not that Goldman was personally at any risk. The bank might be taking all these hideous, completely irresponsible mortgages from beneath-gangster-status firms like Countrywide and selling them off to municipalities and pensioners — old people, for God’s sake — pretending the whole time that it wasn’t grade D horseshit. But even as it was doing so, it was taking short positions in the same market, in essence betting against the same crap it was selling. Even worse, Goldman bragged about it in public. “The mortgage sector continues to be challenged,” David Viniar, the bank’s chief financial officer, boasted in 2007. “As a result, we took significant markdowns on our long inventory positions … However, our risk bias in that market was to be short, and that net short position was profitable.” In other words, the mortgages it was selling were for chumps. The real money was in betting against those same mortgages.
“That’s how audacious these assholes are,” says one hedge fund manager. “At least with other banks, you could say that they were just dumb — they believed what they were selling, and it blew them up. Goldman knew what it was doing.”
I ask the manager how it could be that selling something to customers that you’re actually betting against — particularly when you know more about the weaknesses of those products than the customer — doesn’t amount to securities fraud.
“It’s exactly securities fraud,” he says. “It’s the heart of securities fraud.”
Eventually, lots of aggrieved investors agreed. In a virtual repeat of the Internet IPO craze, Goldman was hit with a wave of lawsuits after the collapse of the housing bubble, many of which accused the bank of withholding pertinent information about the quality of the mortgages it issued. New York state regulators are suing Goldman and 25 other underwriters for selling bundles of crappy Countrywide mortgages to city and state pension funds, which lost as much as $100 million in the investments. Massachusetts also investigated Goldman for similar misdeeds, acting on behalf of 714 mortgage holders who got stuck holding predatory loans. But once again, Goldman got off virtually scot-free, staving off prosecution by agreeing to pay a paltry $60 million — about what the bank’s CDO division made in a day and a half during the real estate boom.
The effects of the housing bubble are well known — it led more or less directly to the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG, whose toxic portfolio of credit swaps was in significant part composed of the insurance that banks like Goldman bought against their own housing portfolios. In fact, at least $13 billion of the taxpayer money given to AIG in the bailout ultimately went to Goldman, meaning that the bank made out on the housing bubble twice: It fucked the investors who bought their horseshit CDOs by betting against its own crappy product, then it turned around and fucked the taxpayer by making him pay off those same bets.
And once again, while the world was crashing down all around the bank, Goldman made sure it was doing just fine in the compensation department. In 2006, the firm’s payroll jumped to $16.5 billion — an average of $622,000 per employee. As a Goldman spokesman explained, “We work very hard here.”
But the best was yet to come. While the collapse of the housing bubble sent most of the financial world fleeing for the exits, or to jail, Goldman boldly doubled down — and almost single-handedly created yet another bubble, one the world still barely knows the firm had anything to do with.
BUBBLE #4 $4 a Gallon
By the beginning of 2008, the financial world was in turmoil. Wall Street had spent the past two and a half decades producing one scandal after another, which didn’t leave much to sell that wasn’t tainted. The terms junk bond, IPO, sub-prime mortgage and other once-hot financial fare were now firmly associated in the public’s mind with scams; the terms credit swaps and CDOs were about to join them. The credit markets were in crisis, and the mantra that had sustained the fantasy economy throughout the Bush years — the notion that housing prices never go down — was now a fully exploded myth, leaving the Street clamoring for a new bullshit paradigm to sling.
Where to go? With the public reluctant to put money in anything that felt like a paper investment, the Street quietly moved the casino to the physical-commodities market — stuff you could touch: corn, coffee, cocoa, wheat and, above all, energy commodities, especially oil. In conjunction with a decline in the dollar, the credit crunch and the housing crash caused a “flight to commodities.” Oil futures in particular skyrocketed, as the price of a single barrel went from around $60 in the middle of 2007 to a high of $147 in the summer of 2008.
That summer, as the presidential campaign heated up, the accepted explanation for why gasoline had hit $4.11 a gallon was that there was a problem with the world oil supply. In a classic example of how Republicans and Democrats respond to crises by engaging in fierce exchanges of moronic irrelevancies, John McCain insisted that ending the moratorium on offshore drilling would be “very helpful in the short term,” while Barack Obama in typical liberal-arts yuppie style argued that federal investment in hybrid cars was the way out.
But it was all a lie. While the global supply of oil will eventually dry up, the short-term flow has actually been increasing. In the six months before prices spiked, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the world oil supply rose from 85.24 million barrels a day to 85.72 million. Over the same period, world oil demand dropped from 86.82 million barrels a day to 86.07 million. Not only was the short-term supply of oil rising, the demand for it was falling — which, in classic economic terms, should have brought prices at the pump down.
So what caused the huge spike in oil prices? Take a wild guess. Obviously Goldman had help — there were other players in the physical commodities market — but the root cause had almost everything to do with the behavior of a few powerful actors determined to turn the once-solid market into a speculative casino. Goldman did it by persuading pension funds and other large institutional investors to invest in oil futures — agreeing to buy oil at a certain price on a fixed date. The push transformed oil from a physical commodity, rigidly subject to supply and demand, into something to bet on, like a stock. Between 2003 and 2008, the amount of speculative money in commodities grew from $13 billion to $317 billion, an increase of 2,300 percent. By 2008, a barrel of oil was traded 27 times, on average, before it was actually delivered and consumed.
As is so often the case, there had been a Depression-era law in place designed specifically to prevent this sort of thing. The commodities market was designed in large part to help farmers: A grower concerned about future price drops could enter into a contract to sell his corn at a certain price for delivery later on, which made him worry less about building up stores of his crop. When no one was buying corn, the farmer could sell to a middleman known as a “traditional speculator,” who would store the grain and sell it later, when demand returned. That way, someone was always there to buy from the farmer, even when the market temporarily had no need for his crops.
In 1936, however, Congress recognized that there should never be more speculators in the market than real producers and consumers. If that happened, prices would be affected by something other than supply and demand, and price manipulations would ensue. A new law empowered the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — the very same body that would later try and fail to regulate credit swaps — to place limits on speculative trades in commodities. As a result of the CFTC’s oversight, peace and harmony reigned in the commodities markets for more than 50 years.
All that changed in 1991 when, unbeknownst to almost everyone in the world, a Goldman-owned commodities-trading subsidiary called J. Aron wrote to the CFTC and made an unusual argument. Farmers with big stores of corn, Goldman argued, weren’t the only ones who needed to hedge their risk against future price drops — Wall Street dealers who made big bets on oil prices also needed to hedge their risk, because, well, they stood to lose a lot too.
This was complete and utter crap — the 1936 law, remember, was specifically designed to maintain distinctions between people who were buying and selling real tangible stuff and people who were trading in paper alone. But the CFTC, amazingly, bought Goldman’s argument. It issued the bank a free pass, called the “Bona Fide Hedging” exemption, allowing Goldman’s subsidiary to call itself a physical hedger and escape virtually all limits placed on speculators. In the years that followed, the commission would quietly issue 14 similar exemptions to other companies.
Now Goldman and other banks were free to drive more investors into the commodities markets, enabling speculators to place increasingly big bets. That 1991 letter from Goldman more or less directly led to the oil bubble in 2008, when the number of speculators in the market — driven there by fear of the falling dollar and the housing crash — finally overwhelmed the real physical suppliers and consumers.
By 2008, at least three quarters of the activity on the commodity exchanges was speculative, according to a congressional staffer who studied the numbers — and that’s likely a conservative estimate. By the middle of 2009, despite rising supply and a drop in demand, we were paying $4 a gallon every time we pulled up to the pump.
What is even more amazing is that the letter to Goldman, along with most of the other trading exemptions, was handed out more or less in secret. “I was the head of the division of trading and markets, and Brooksley Born was the chair of the CFTC,” says Greenberger, “and neither of us knew this letter was out there.” In fact, the letters only came to light by accident. Last year, a staffer for the House Energy and Commerce Committee just happened to be at a briefing when officials from the CFTC made an offhand reference to the exemptions.
“I had been invited to a briefing the commission was holding on energy,” the staffer recounts. “And suddenly in the middle of it, they start saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve been issuing these letters for years now.’ I raised my hand and said, ‘Really? You issued a letter? Can I see it?’ And they were like, ‘Duh, duh.’ So we went back and forth, and finally they said, ‘We have to clear it with Goldman Sachs.’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean, you have to clear it with Goldman Sachs?’”
The CFTC cited a rule that prohibited it from releasing any information about a company’s current position in the market. But the staffer’s request was about a letter that had been issued 17 years earlier. It no longer had anything to do with Goldman’s current position. What’s more, Section 7 of the 1936 commodities law gives Congress the right to any information it wants from the commission. Still, in a classic example of how complete Goldman’s capture of government is, the CFTC waited until it got clearance from the bank before it turned the letter over.
Armed with the semi-secret government exemption, Goldman had become the chief designer of a giant commodities betting parlor. Its Goldman Sachs Commodities Index — which tracks the prices of 24 major commodities but is overwhelmingly weighted toward oil — became the place where pension funds and insurance companies and other institutional investors could make massive long-term bets on commodity prices. Which was all well and good, except for a couple of things. One was that index speculators are mostly “long only” bettors, who seldom if ever take short positions — meaning they only bet on prices to rise. While this kind of behavior is good for a stock market, it’s terrible for commodities, because it continually forces prices upward. “If index speculators took short positions as well as long ones, you’d see them pushing prices both up and down,” says Michael Masters, a hedge fund manager who has helped expose the role of investment banks in the manipulation of oil prices. “But they only push prices in one direction: up.”
Complicating matters even further was the fact that Goldman itself was cheerleading with all its might for an increase in oil prices. In the beginning of 2008, Arjun Murti, a Goldman analyst, hailed as an “oracle of oil” by The New York Times, predicted a “super spike” in oil prices, forecasting a rise to $200 a barrel. At the time Goldman was heavily invested in oil through its commodities trading subsidiary, J. Aron; it also owned a stake in a major oil refinery in Kansas, where it warehoused the crude it bought and sold. Even though the supply of oil was keeping pace with demand, Murti continually warned of disruptions to the world oil supply, going so far as to broadcast the fact that he owned two hybrid cars. High prices, the bank insisted, were somehow the fault of the piggish American consumer; in 2005, Goldman analysts insisted that we wouldn’t know when oil prices would fall until we knew “when American consumers will stop buying gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and instead seek fuel-efficient alternatives.”
But it wasn’t the consumption of real oil that was driving up prices — it was the trade in paper oil. By the summer of 2008, in fact, commodities speculators had bought and stockpiled enough oil futures to fill 1.1 billion barrels of crude, which meant that speculators owned more future oil on paper than there was real, physical oil stored in all of the country’s commercial storage tanks and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve combined. It was a repeat of both the Internet craze and the housing bubble, when Wall Street jacked up present-day profits by selling suckers shares of a fictional fantasy future of endlessly rising prices.
In what was by now a painfully familiar pattern, the oil-commodities melon hit the pavement hard in the summer of 2008, causing a massive loss of wealth; crude prices plunged from $147 to $33. Once again the big losers were ordinary people. The pensioners whose funds invested in this crap got massacred: CalPERS, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, had $1.1 billion in commodities when the crash came. And the damage didn’t just come from oil. Soaring food prices driven by the commodities bubble led to catastrophes across the planet, forcing an estimated 100 million people into hunger and sparking food riots throughout the Third World.
Now oil prices are rising again: They shot up 20 percent in the month of May and have nearly doubled so far this year. Once again, the problem is not supply or demand. “The highest supply of oil in the last 20 years is now,” says Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan who serves on the House energy committee. “Demand is at a 10-year low. And yet prices are up.”
Asked why politicians continue to harp on things like drilling or hybrid cars, when supply and demand have nothing to do with the high prices, Stupak shakes his head. “I think they just don’t understand the problem very well,” he says. “You can’t explain it in 30 seconds, so politicians ignore it.”
BUBBLE #5 Rigging the Bailout
After the oil bubble collapsed last fall, there was no new bubble to keep things humming — this time, the money seems to be really gone, like worldwide-depression gone. So the financial safari has moved elsewhere, and the big game in the hunt has become the only remaining pool of dumb, unguarded capital left to feed upon: taxpayer money. Here, in the biggest bailout in history, is where Goldman Sachs really started to flex its muscle.
It began in September of last year, when then-Treasury secretary Paulson made a momentous series of decisions. Although he had already engineered a rescue of Bear Stearns a few months before and helped bail out quasi-private lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Paulson elected to let Lehman Brothers — one of Goldman’s last real competitors — collapse without intervention. (“Goldman’s superhero status was left intact,” says market analyst Eric Salzman, “and an investment banking competitor, Lehman, goes away.”) The very next day, Paulson green-lighted a massive, $85 billion bailout of AIG, which promptly turned around and repaid $13 billion it owed to Goldman. Thanks to the rescue effort, the bank ended up getting paid in full for its bad bets: By contrast, retired auto workers awaiting the Chrysler bailout will be lucky to receive 50 cents for every dollar they are owed.
Immediately after the AIG bailout, Paulson announced his federal bailout for the financial industry, a $700 billion plan called the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and put a heretofore unknown 35-year-old Goldman banker named Neel Kashkari in charge of administering the funds. In order to qualify for bailout monies, Goldman announced that it would convert from an investment bank to a bank holding company, a move that allows it access not only to $10 billion in TARP funds, but to a whole galaxy of less conspicuous, publicly backed funding — most notably, lending from the discount window of the Federal Reserve. By the end of March, the Fed will have lent or guaranteed at least $8.7 trillion under a series of new bailout programs — and thanks to an obscure law allowing the Fed to block most congressional audits, both the amounts and the recipients of the monies remain almost entirely secret.
Converting to a bank-holding company has other benefits as well: Goldman’s primary supervisor is now the New York Fed, whose chairman at the time of its announcement was Stephen Friedman, a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs. Friedman was technically in violation of Federal Reserve policy by remaining on the board of Goldman even as he was supposedly regulating the bank; in order to rectify the problem, he applied for, and got, a conflict of interest waiver from the government. Friedman was also supposed to divest himself of his Goldman stock after Goldman became a bank holding company, but thanks to the waiver, he was allowed to go out and buy 52,000 additional shares in his old bank, leaving him $3 million richer. Friedman stepped down in May, but the man now in charge of supervising Goldman — New York Fed president William Dudley — is yet another former Goldmanite.
The collective message of all this — the AIG bailout, the swift approval for its bank holding conversion, the TARP funds — is that when it comes to Goldman Sachs, there isn’t a free market at all. The government might let other players on the market die, but it simply will not allow Goldman to fail under any circumstances. Its edge in the market has suddenly become an open declaration of supreme privilege. “In the past it was an implicit advantage,” says Simon Johnson, an economics professor at MIT and former official at the International Monetary Fund, who compares the bailout to the crony capitalism he has seen in Third World countries. “Now it’s more of an explicit advantage.”
Once the bailouts were in place, Goldman went right back to business as usual, dreaming up impossibly convoluted schemes to pick the American carcass clean of its loose capital. One of its first moves in the post-bailout era was to quietly push forward the calendar it uses to report its earnings, essentially wiping December 2008 — with its $1.3 billion in pretax losses — off the books. At the same time, the bank announced a highly suspicious $1.8 billion profit for the first quarter of 2009 — which apparently included a large chunk of money funneled to it by taxpayers via the AIG bailout. “They cooked those first quarter results six ways from Sunday,” says one hedge fund manager. “They hid the losses in the orphan month and called the bailout money profit.”
Two more numbers stand out from that stunning first-quarter turnaround. The bank paid out an astonishing $4.7 billion in bonuses and compensation in the first three months of this year, an 18 percent increase over the first quarter of 2008. It also raised $5 billion by issuing new shares almost immediately after releasing its first quarter results. Taken together, the numbers show that Goldman essentially borrowed a $5 billion salary payout for its executives in the middle of the global economic crisis it helped cause, using half-baked accounting to reel in investors, just months after receiving billions in a taxpayer bailout.
Even more amazing, Goldman did it all right before the government announced the results of its new “stress test” for banks seeking to repay TARP money — suggesting that Goldman knew exactly what was coming. The government was trying to carefully orchestrate the repayments in an effort to prevent further trouble at banks that couldn’t pay back the money right away. But Goldman blew off those concerns, brazenly flaunting its insider status. “They seemed to know everything that they needed to do before the stress test came out, unlike everyone else, who had to wait until after,” says Michael Hecht, a managing director of JMP Securities. “The government came out and said, ‘To pay back TARP, you have to issue debt of at least five years that is not insured by FDIC — which Goldman Sachs had already done, a week or two before.”
And here’s the real punch line. After playing an intimate role in four historic bubble catastrophes, after helping $5 trillion in wealth disappear from the NASDAQ, after pawning off thousands of toxic mortgages on pensioners and cities, after helping to drive the price of gas up to $4 a gallon and to push 100 million people around the world into hunger, after securing tens of billions of taxpayer dollars through a series of bailouts overseen by its former CEO, what did Goldman Sachs give back to the people of the United States in 2008?
Fourteen million dollars.
That is what the firm paid in taxes in 2008, an effective tax rate of exactly one, read it, one percent. The bank paid out $10 billion in compensation and benefits that same year and made a profit of more than $2 billion — yet it paid the Treasury less than a third of what it forked over to CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who made $42.9 million last year.
How is this possible? According to Goldman’s annual report, the low taxes are due in large part to changes in the bank’s “geographic earnings mix.” In other words, the bank moved its money around so that most of its earnings took place in foreign countries with low tax rates. Thanks to our completely fucked corporate tax system, companies like Goldman can ship their revenues offshore and defer taxes on those revenues indefinitely, even while they claim deductions upfront on that same untaxed income. This is why any corporation with an at least occasionally sober accountant can usually find a way to zero out its taxes. A GAO report, in fact, found that between 1998 and 2005, roughly two-thirds of all corporations operating in the U.S. paid no taxes at all.
This should be a pitchfork-level outrage — but somehow, when Goldman released its post-bailout tax profile, hardly anyone said a word. One of the few to remark on the obscenity was Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Texas who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee. “With the right hand out begging for bailout money,” he said, “the left is hiding it offshore.”
BUBBLE #6 Global Warming
Fast-forward to today. It’s early June in Washington, D.C. Barack Obama, a popular young politician whose leading private campaign donor was an investment bank called Goldman Sachs — its employees paid some $981,000 to his campaign — sits in the White House. Having seamlessly navigated the political minefield of the bailout era, Goldman is once again back to its old business, scouting out loopholes in a new government-created market with the aid of a new set of alumni occupying key government jobs.
Gone are Hank Paulson and Neel Kashkari; in their place are Treasury chief of staff Mark Patterson and CFTC chief Gary Gensler, both former Goldmanites. (Gensler was the firm’s co-head of finance.) And instead of credit derivatives or oil futures or mortgage-backed CDOs, the new game in town, the next bubble, is in carbon credits — a booming trillion dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that it gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an “environmental plan,” called cap-and-trade.
The new carbon credit market is a virtual repeat of the commodities-market casino that’s been kind to Goldman, except it has one delicious new wrinkle: If the plan goes forward as expected, the rise in prices will be government-mandated. Goldman won’t even have to rig the game. It will be rigged in advance.
Here’s how it works: If the bill passes, there will be limits for coal plants, utilities, natural-gas distributors and numerous other industries on the amount of carbon emissions (a.k.a. greenhouse gases) they can produce per year. If the companies go over their allotment, they will be able to buy “allocations” or credits from other companies that have managed to produce fewer emissions. President Obama conservatively estimates that about $646 billion worth of carbon credits will be auctioned in the first seven years; one of his top economic aides speculates that the real number might be twice or even three times that amount.
The feature of this plan that has special appeal to speculators is that the “cap” on carbon will be continually lowered by the government, which means that carbon credits will become more and more scarce with each passing year. Which means that this is a brand new commodities market where the main commodity to be traded is guaranteed to rise in price over time. The volume of this new market will be upwards of a trillion dollars annually; for comparison’s sake, the annual combined revenues of all electricity suppliers in the U.S. total $320 billion.
Goldman wants this bill. The plan is (1) to get in on the ground floor of paradigm-shifting legislation, (2) make sure that they’re the profit-making slice of that paradigm and (3) make sure the slice is a big slice. Goldman started pushing hard for cap-and-trade long ago, but things really ramped up last year when the firm spent $3.5 million to lobby climate issues. (One of their lobbyists at the time was none other than Patterson, now Treasury chief of staff.) Back in 2005, when Hank Paulson was chief of Goldman, he personally helped author the bank’s environmental policy, a document that contains some surprising elements for a firm that in all other areas has been consistently opposed to any sort of government regulation. Paulson’s report argued that “voluntary action alone cannot solve the climate change problem.” A few years later, the bank’s carbon chief, Ken Newcombe, insisted that cap-and-trade alone won’t be enough to fix the climate problem and called for further public investments in research and development. Which is convenient, considering that Goldman made early investments in wind power (it bought a subsidiary called Horizon Wind Energy), renewable diesel (it is an investor in a firm called Changing World Technologies) and solar power (it partnered with BP Solar), exactly the kind of deals that will prosper if the government forces energy producers to use cleaner energy. As Paulson said at the time, “We’re not making those investments to lose money.”
The bank owns a 10 percent stake in the Chicago Climate Exchange, where the carbon credits will be traded. Moreover, Goldman owns a minority stake in Blue Source LLC, a Utah-based firm that sells carbon credits of the type that will be in great demand if the bill passes. Nobel Prize winner Al Gore, who is intimately involved with the planning of cap-and-trade, started up a company called Generation Investment Management with three former bigwigs from Goldman Sachs Asset Management, David Blood, Mark Ferguson and Peter Harris. Their business? Investing in carbon offsets. There’s also a $500 million Green Growth Fund set up by a Goldmanite to invest in green-tech … the list goes on and on. Goldman is ahead of the headlines again, just waiting for someone to make it rain in the right spot. Will this market be bigger than the energy futures market?
“Oh, it’ll dwarf it,” says a former staffer on the House energy committee.
Well, you might say, who cares? If cap-and-trade succeeds, won’t we all be saved from the catastrophe of global warming? Maybe — but cap-and-trade, as envisioned by Goldman, is really just a carbon tax structured so that private interests collect the revenues. Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make, cap-and-trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private tax collection scheme. This is worse than the bailout: It allows the bank to seize taxpayer money before it’s even collected.
“If it’s going to be a tax, I would prefer that Washington set the tax and collect it,” says Michael Masters, the hedge fund director who spoke out against oil futures speculation. “But we’re saying that Wall Street can set the tax, and Wall Street can collect the tax. That’s the last thing in the world I want. It’s just asinine.”
Cap-and-trade is going to happen. Or, if it doesn’t, something like it will. The moral is the same as for all the other bubbles that Goldman helped create, from 1929 to 2009. In almost every case, the very same bank that behaved recklessly for years, weighing down the system with toxic loans and predatory debt, and accomplishing nothing but massive bonuses for a few bosses, has been rewarded with mountains of virtually free money and government guarantees — while the actual victims in this mess, ordinary taxpayers, are the ones paying for it.
It’s not always easy to accept the reality of what we now routinely allow these people to get away with; there’s a kind of collective denial that kicks in when a country goes through what America has gone through lately, when a people lose as much prestige and status as we have in the past few years. You can’t really register the fact that you’re no longer a citizen of a thriving first-world democracy, that you’re no longer above getting robbed in broad daylight, because like an amputee, you can still sort of feel things that are no longer there.
But this is it. This is the world we live in now. And in this world, some of us have to play by the rules, while others get a note from the principal excusing them from homework till the end of time, plus 10 billion free dollars in a paper bag to buy lunch. It’s a gangster state, running on gangster economics, and even prices can’t be trusted anymore; there are hidden taxes in every buck you pay. And maybe we can’t stop it, but we should at least know where it’s all going.
This article originally appeared in the July 9-23, 2009 of Rolling Stone
Wolfgang Streeck: the German economist calling time on capitalism
Outside was panic. Barely a couple of hours after Donald Trump had been declared the next president of the United States and even the political columnists, those sleek interlocutors of power, were in shock. At the National Gallery in London, however, one of the few thinkers to have anticipated Trump’s rise was ready to see some paintings. Over from Germany for a few days of lectures, Wolfgang Streeck had an afternoon spare – and we both wanted to see the Beyond Caravaggioexhibition.
Nothing in his work prepares you for meeting Streeck (pronounced Stray-k). Professionally, he is the political economist barking last orders for our way of life, and warning of the “dark ages” ahead. His books bear bluntly fin-de-siecle titles: two years ago was Buying Time, while the latest is called How Will Capitalism End? (spoiler: not well). Even his admirers talk of his “despair”, by which they mean sentences such as this: “Before capitalism will go to hell, it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.”
What does such gloom look like in the flesh? Small glasses, neat side parting and moustache, a backpack, a smart anorak and at least a decade younger than his 70 years. Alluding to Trump’s victory, he cheerily declares “What a morning!” as if discussing the likelihood of rain, then strolls into the gallery.
You don’t merely look at a Caravaggio; you square up to one. The scenes are tightly cropped, with characters that jostle and stare at the viewer. Their mordancy is a tonic to Streeck, who laughs with delight. He pauses in front of Boy Bitten by a Lizard and admires how the lizard clings on with its teeth to the boy’s finger. At a scene of cardsharps he exclaims, “Feel the decadence! The threat of violence!”
He notes how many paintings date from just before the thirty years’ war: “They’re full of the anticipation that the world is about to fall apart.”
Then comes The Taking of Christ, a dark, dense painting that shows Jesus just after his betrayal by Judas. Gripped by his treacherous former disciple, Christ looks down, ready to be bundled off by the armoured Roman centurions. “Caravaggio is always there just before the explosion,” Streeck observes. “This morning might have been a Caravaggio moment: just before the election of Trump.”
Like Caravaggio before the explosion, Streeck has been hanging around this crash scene for years – long before the plane came hurtling down and the centrist politicians and pundits began rushing around.
At a time when macroeconomists have failed and other academics have retreated into disciplinary solipsism, Streeck is one of the few (other exceptions include Mark Blyth, Colin Crouch and the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change) to have risen to the moment. Many of the themes that will define this year, this decade, are in his work. The breakup of Europe, the rise of plutocrat-populists such as Trump, the failures of Mark Carney and the technocratic elite: he has anatomised all of them.
This summer, Britons mutinied against their government, their experts and the EU – and consigned themselves to a poorer, angrier future. Such frenzies of collective self-harm were explained by Streeck in the 2012 lectures later collected in Buying Time:
Professionalised political science tends to underestimate the impact of moral outrage. With its penchant for studied indifference … [it] has nothing but elitist contempt for what it calls “populism”, sharing this with the power elites to which it would like to be close … [But] citizens too can “panic” and react “irrationally”, just like financial investors … even though they have no banknotes as arguments but only words and (who knows?) paving stones.
Here he is in 2013, foreshadowing the world of LuxLeaks, SwissLeaks and the Panama Papers and their revelations of a one-sided class war – by the 1% against the rest of us:
Why should the new oligarchs be interested in their countries’ future productive capacities and present democratic stability if, apparently, they can be rich without it, processing back and forth the synthetic money produced for them at no cost by a central bank for which the sky is the limit, at each stage diverting from it hefty fees and unprecedented salaries, bonuses, and profits as long as it is forthcoming – and then leave their country to its remaining devices and withdraw to some privately owned island?
And in a 2015 essay, he warns that resentment against such elites will not be wholesomely Fabian but will instead take the form either of “public entertainment” or “some politically regressive sort of nationalism”. It will look less like Hillary than Donald:
Politicization is migrating to the right side of the political spectrum where anti-establishment parties are getting better and better at organising discontented citizens dependent upon public services and insisting on political protection from international markets.
In such long, precise, comfortless sentences, Streeck sets out the crises facing Britain, the US and the continent. His diagnosis is both political and economic, and it makes him what Chris Bickerton, a lecturer in politics at Cambridge, thinks might be “the most interesting person around today on the subject of the relationship between democracy and capitalism”.
Which makes him the most interesting person on the most urgent subject of our times. Eight years after Lehman Brothers keeled over and nearly took the entire banking system down with it, capitalism remains broken. British workers are suffering their most severe pay squeeze in at least seven decades. And even though politicians and the policymakers have pulled on every lever – cuts, investment, housing boom, hundreds of billions pumped into the markets – still the engine refuses to purr. The failure is international: the Bank of International Settlements, the central banks’ central bank, warned a few months ago that “the global economy seems unable to return to sustainable and balanced growth”.
Not for the first time, the sandwich board-wearers are declaring the end of capitalism – but today Streeck believes they are right. In its deepest crises, he says, modern capitalism has relied on its enemies to wade in with the lifebelt of reform. During the Great Depression of the 30s, it was FDR’s Democrats who rolled out the New Deal, while Britain’s trade unionists allied with Keynes.
Compare that with now. Over 40 years, neoliberal capitalism has destroyed its opposition. When Margaret Thatcher was asked to give her greatest achievement, she nominated “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.” The prime minister who declared “There is no alternative”, then did her damnedest to extirpate any such alternative. The result? The unions are withered, the independent tenants’ associations have disappeared along with the stock of council housing, the BBC is forever on the back foot, and local, regional and national newspapers are now the regular subjects of obituaries. A similar story can be told across the rich world.
Public discontent is fitful and fragmented, ready to fall into Trump’s tiny hands. Meanwhile, capitalism – unrestrained and unreformed – will die.
This isn’t the violent overthrow envisaged by Marx and Engels. In The Communist Manifesto, they argued that capitalism’s “gravediggers” would be the proletariat. Nearly 170 years later, Streeck is predicting that the capitalists will be their own gravediggers, through having destroyed the workers and the dissidents they needed to maintain the system. What comes next is not some better replacement but is more akin to the centuries-long rotting away of the Roman empire.
And, yes, his latest book is out just in time for Christmas. Not so long ago, such catastrophism would have been the stuff of Speakers’ Corner. Today, it goes right to the brokenness of politics.
Streeck is admired by the team around Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and was invited to this year’s Labour conference in Liverpool (work commitments forced him to decline). One senior adviser described his relevance to British politics thus: “He is pretty blunt about how serious the situation is, for social democracy and capitalism.”
What gives Streeck’s analysis extra force is that he comes from the very establishment he now attacks. He has played many key roles: joint head of Germany’s top social science institute, an adviser in the late 90s to Gerhard Schröder’s government, one of Europe’s most eminent theorists of capitalism. While never a Third Way-er, he was friendly with David and Ed Miliband.
“I spent a long time in my life exploring the possibilities for an intelligent social democratic solution of the class conflict,” he explains over lunch. “The idea that we could modify capitalism towards equality and social justice. That we could tame the beast. Now I think those are more or less utopian ideals.”
He is thus a case study in the very thing he writes about: the demoralisation of centrist politics – and its radicalisation.
The great disillusionment came upon returning to Germany in 1995, after years teaching industrial relations in the US. It was the era of Germany being labelled “the sick man of Europe”, when one in five east German workers were unemployed. Through the metalworkers’ trade union, Streeck was invited to join a committee of trade unions, employers and government. Called the Alliance for Jobs (Bündnis für Arbeit), its task was to reform labour laws. Streeck believed this was “the last call for trade unions and social democracy”: the final chance to get more people into work without stripping workers of their rights.
“We came up with a good model, but everything we proposed was blocked – not just by the employers but by the unions, too.”
The Alliance fell apart and within a couple of years, Schröder had brought in the Hartz reforms – policies drawn up by a former Volkswagen executive that set up a new regime of workfare and benefit sanctions, and kicked the bottom out of the labour market.
A member of the Social Democratic Party, Germany’s counterpart to Labour, since the age of 16, Streeck finally cancelled his subs a few years ago. Would he still place himself as a social democrat? He quotes Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind.” In another interview he has described “the most urgent task for the left” as “sobering up”.
The constant sobriety might prove wearing, were it not for his easy companionship. Listening back to the recording, the primary sound is Streeck’s laughter – that and “Jajaja!”, a Bren gun enthusiasm for any new idea or argument.
He also gives good gossip. A “power breakfast” with financial policymakers and investment bankers is dismissed as “clueless and so stereoptypical. They complained about the stupidity of the masses who didn’t understand the expertise that someone like Alan Greenspan was able to bring to central banking.” This is the same Greenspan who, as head of the US central bank in the bubble years, believed financiers could regulate themselves.
On this trip he went to a conference on Brexit. “I was shocked by the unanimous sense of guilt.” One former British ambassador “began by saying we have to apologise to our foreign friends for the vote to leave Europe. I said, ‘You ought to be happy to have sent a warning to the European Union.’”
He sees the support for Brexit and Trump as stemming from the same source. “You have a growing group of all people, who, under the impact of neoliberal internationalisation, have become increasingly excluded from the mainstream of their society.
“You look out here,” He gestures out of the windows of the National Gallery, at the domes and columns of Trafalgar Square, “And it’s a second Rome. You walk through the streets at night and you say, ‘My God, yes: this is what an empire looks like’.” This is the land of what Streeck calls the Marktsvolk – literally, the people of the market, the club-class financiers and executives, the asset-owning winners of globalisation.
But this space – geographic, economic, political – is off-limits to the Staatsvolk: the ones who fly yearly on holiday rather than weekly on business, the downsized, the indebted losers of neoliberalism. “These people are being driven out of London. In French cities it’s the same thing. This both reinforces them as a political power structure, and puts them completely on the defensive. But one thing they do know is that conventional politics has totally written them off.” Social democrats such as the outgoing Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi are guilty, too. “They’re on the side of the winners.”
International flows of people, money and goods: Streeck accepts the need for all these – “but in some sort of directed, governable way. It has to be, otherwise societies dissolve”.
Those views on immigration landed him in another fight this summer, when he wrote an essay attacking Angela Merkel for her open-door policy towards refugees from Syria and elsewhere. It was a “ploy”, he said, to import tens of thousands of cheap workers and thus allow German employers to bring down wages. Colleagues accused him of spinning a “neoliberal conspiracy”theory and of giving cover to Germany’s far right. Streeck’s defence is simple: “It is impossible to protect wages against an unlimited labour supply. Does saying that make me some proto-fascist?”
What gives this back-and-forth a twist is the little-known fact that Streeck is himself the child of refugees. Both 25 years old when the second world war ended, his parents were among the 12 million displaced people to arrive from eastern Europe in West Germany. Streeck was born just outside Münster in a room requisitioned by the state from a shoemaker. His parents were poor. “I remember they stole vegetables from the fields and coal from passing trains.”
His mother was a Sudeten German in Czechoslovakia, who was given 24 hours’ notice to leave when the war ended, taking only what she could carry. After Streeck left home she began to study the Czech language. “It was a sense of ‘If I can’t go back there I at least want to speak the language of those people who now live where I used to’.”
Her son went to a grammar school founded by Martin Luther, where he was taught Greek and Latin and expected to become a theologian. Instead, he fell in with the then-illegal Communist party. Aged 16, he was in charge of organising the reading circle – “suppressed literature such as the Communist Manifesto and Rosa Luxemburg” – and held it at the local employers’ association “because no one would ever suspect”.
In 1968, he was a student radical at Frankfurt, “but I never had any truck with the ‘marijuana left’. I felt closer to the working class than to the pot-smoking classes”.
Now he lives with his wife in part of a farmyard of a castle in Brühl, a small town just outside Cologne. The retiree is still up by six every morning and at his desk for 8.30. “I have learned to write only till 1pm. After that I give myself over to academic intrigues.” And to novels: when we meet, he is reading I Hate the Internet, by Jarett Kobek, a Silicon Valley engineer who claims that the internet has “fucked up” his life.
After lunch, we cross the Thames to King’s College where Streeck is to deliver a lecture. There is more gossip, this time about Greek politics and the hollowing out of the Syriza government. As teenagers, Streeck’s class travelled to Greece to look at antiquities. Instead, he began reading local newspapers on the king’s attempts to chuck out prime minister Georgios Papandreou. “I wrote a report in the school newspaper that was almost entirely concerned with the emerging military dictatorship.” Sixty years later, he is working on a book about democracy in southern Europe.
The lecture room is packed, students spread across the floor and peering around the wall at Streeck, absent-mindedly playing with a paperclip and quoting Gramsci: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born. [pause] In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms can appear.” In the lecture’s interval, a variety of students buy his books and hover about for him to sign them. At the end, a student asks: “what should the left do?”
It is the same question I’d put a few hours earlier. Both times, Streeck warns he is about to disappoint us. To me he cites an Occupy protest in Frankfurt. Days before that, he says, thousands of police were deployed to Germany’s capital of finance. “The authorities were scared shitless. I think more such scariness must happen. They must learn that in order to keep people quiet they need extraordinary effort.”
No mention of ballot boxes; nor of any need for a bigger vision “because the others don’t have a blueprint”.
But, I say, Nigel Farage and the rest are at least pretending to have an answer.
“And we should criticise them.” The press always talks of a lack of business confidence, he says; now is the time for the voters to demonstrate a lack of public confidence.
The analogy doesn’t work and, listening back to the tape, I can hear agitation in my voice. A businessperson can go on an investment strike; he or she can hoard cash. Even if voters sat out an election, they would still face the consequences. Muslim mums would get their headscarves ripped off, a Polish man could get stabbed to death for going in the wrong kebab shop.
In a phone call a couple of weeks later, I press Streeck again. “If I look 10 or 20 years out, I don’t like what I see,” he says. Nor is he alone: he quotes a new book by the former head of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, and his projection of “great uncertainty” ahead.
But doesn’t he want something better than a new dark ages for his grandchildren? “If I am honest, now I am thankful for every passing year that is good and peaceful. And I hope for another one. Very short-term, I know, but those are my horizons.”
• How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System by Wolfgang Streeck (Verso, £16.99). To order a copy for £13.93, go to bookshop.theguardian.comor call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
A Hillbilly and a Survivalist Show the Way Out of Trump Country: One common thread of J.D. Vance’s and Tara Westover’s memoirs is distrust of institutions. Yet it was institutions — the military in one case, college in the other — that saved them. By Timothy Egan, NYTimes.com, Feb. 1, 2019
The two great literary bookends of President Trump’s half-term of grift and chaos have come from survivors of the most broken white communities that helped put him in office. They also show us the best way out of the basement of American despair.
How J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” and Tara Westover, who wrote “Educated,” escaped physical and psychological horror is the dose of Charles Dickens that makes these two memoirs so memorable.
Vance was raised by grandparents from Kentucky in a declining steel town in southwest Ohio. His mother was a drug addict who married several times. It was doubtful he would finish high school. Now he’s a venture capitalist who hobnobs with One Percenters in gilded hollows, and Ron Howard is making a movie of his life. He’s closer to a Beverly Hillbilly than one from Appalachia.
Westover, a self-taught writer of incandescent insight, came from a clan of survivalist end-timers in rural Idaho, was badly beaten by her brother and was nearly killed when forced to work at the family junkyard. Her parents didn’t believe in birth certificates, school or safety regulations. She is now Dr. Westover, with a Ph.D. in history, after stops at Harvard and Cambridge. Of late, she glam-posed for Vogue from her home in Britain.
These are two stories of triumph, and I have not a quibble with the magnificent telling of how their authors got from there to here. Hurrah for them. Both books, now circulating on college mandatory-read lists, have been sold in part as anthropological guides to a Trumpland that is terra incognita to most Americans.
On the surface, this is true. Vance’s ragged Middletown, Ohio, went for Trump two to one. And Franklin County, Idaho, where Westover grew up, gave Hillary Clinton just 7 percent of its vote. Trump got 10 times as much. The people we meet in both places are poor, white, undereducated, violent and evangelical in the extreme.
But as much as these folks were all-in for the oft-bankrupt developer, Trump’s presidency has been a kick in the teeth for them. A con man in business turned out to be an even greater con man in office. The policies he has promoted — taking health care from the poor, trying to slash aid for people unable to afford college, gutting regulations that save lives in mills and scrapyards — have made life more hazardous in Trump-won ZIP codes.
Beyond that, the surprise takeaway from these books is that we have the tools at hand to ensure that demography is not destiny in Forgotten America. One common thread of both memoirs is distrust of institutions. And yet it was institutions — the military in Vance’s case, college in Westover’s life — that saved them.
That, and a handful of people who showed them enough love and an escape route from places where “family dysfunction” is too kind a euphemism.
Their cultures are toxic and intransigent. As Vance writes, “poverty is in the family tradition,” as is “learned helplessness.” In other words, the hillbillies of his book have no one but themselves to blame for being hillbillies. Many of his neighbors are painted as lazy dependents of opioids and government handouts. There’s plenty of fighting, fornicating and fact-denying.
He is scornful of government help programs. “I am a conservative,” he writes in a new afterword, “one who doubts that the 1960s approach to welfare has made it easier for our country’s poor children to achieve their dreams.”
But it was a government hand up — the great meritocracy of the Marine Corps and federal aid to get through college — that sent Vance on his way. To his credit, he has recently helped raise more than $150 million in venture capital to encourage new businesses in overlooked communities.
Tara Westover’s story is more harrowing. It’s not just the dark cave of ignorance in which she was raised. She says she was beaten senseless by her brother, in a family that enabled domestic abuse. Her father believed that doctors were “minions of Satan,” and public school was a plot of the Illuminati.
College was her lifeline. Between battering from her brother and serious injuries at the old man’s junkyard, she taught herself enough to get into Brigham Young University. There she first heard about the Holocaust and bipolar disorder, among many revelations.
College is certainly no panacea for all 16 million whites living in poverty, among Trump’s strongest backers. But it is for enough of them. And what Trump offered these people, in his proposed budget for last year, were proposals to cut education aid by $200 billion over the next decade. He would have made it harder for the poor to stay in college.
When Westover’s father visited her at Harvard, he told her, “You have been taken over by Lucifer.”
She saw it differently. College gave her a life of the mind, a new self. “You could call this selfhood many things,” she writes at the end of a fabulous story. “I call it an education.”
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Why is American politics so dysfunctional? Whatever the deeper roots of our distress, the proximate cause is ideological extremism: Powerful factions are committed to false views of the world, regardless of the evidence.
Notice that I said factions, plural. There’s no question that the most disruptive, dangerous extremists are on the right. But there’s another faction whose obsessions and refusal to face reality have also done a great deal of harm.
But I’m not talking about the left. Radical leftists are virtually nonexistent in American politics; can you think of any prominent figure who wants us to move to the left of, say, Denmark? No, I’m talking about fanatical centrists.
Over the past few days we’ve been treated to the ludicrous yet potentially destructive spectacle of Howard Schultz, the Starbucks billionaire, insisting that he’s the president we need despite his demonstrable policy ignorance. Schultz obviously thinks he knows a lot of things that just aren’t so. Yet his delusions of knowledge aren’t that special. For the most part, they follow conventional centrist doctrine.
First, there’s the obsession with public debt. This obsession might have made some sense back in 2010, when some feared a Greek-style crisis, although even then I could have told you that such fears were misplaced. In fact, I did.
In any case, however, eight years have passed since Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson predicted a fiscal crisis within two years unless their calls for spending cuts were heeded, yet U.S. borrowing costs remain at historical lows. These low borrowing costs mean that fears of snowballing debt are groundless; mainstream economists now tell us that “the risks associated with high debt levels are small relative to the harm cutting deficits would do.”
Schultz, however, still declares debt our biggest problem. Yet true to centrist form, his deficit concerns are oddly selective. Bowles and Simpson, charged with proposing a solution to deficits, listed as their first principle … reducing tax rates. Sure enough, Schultz is all into cutting Social Security, but opposes any tax hike on the wealthy.
Funny how that works.
In general, centrists are furiously opposed to any proposal that would ease the lives of ordinary Americans. Universal health coverage, says Schultz, would be “free health care for all, which the country cannot afford.”
And he’s not alone in saying things like that. A few days ago Michael Bloomberg declared that extending Medicare to everyone, as Kamala Harris suggests, would “bankrupt us for a very long time.”
Now, single-payer health care (actually called Medicare!) hasn’t bankrupted Canada. In fact, every advanced country besides America has some form of universal health coverage, and manages to afford it.
The real issue with “Medicare for all” isn’t costs — the taxes needed to pay for it would almost surely be less than what Americans now pay in insurance premiums. The problem instead would be political: It would be tricky persuading people to trade private insurance for a public program. That’s a real concern for Medicare-for-all advocates, but it’s not at all what either Schultz or Bloomberg is saying.
Finally, the hallmark of fanatical centrism is the determination to see America’s left and right as equally extreme, no matter what they actually propose.
Thus, throughout the Obama years, centrists called for political leaders who would address their debt concerns with an approach that combined spending cuts with revenue increases, offer a market-based health care plan and invest in infrastructure, somehow never managing to acknowledge that there was one major figure proposing exactly that — President Barack Obama.
And now, with Democrats taking a turn that is more progressive but hardly radical, centrist rhetoric has become downright hysterical. Medicare and Medicaid already cover more than a third of U.S. residents and pay more bills than private insurance.
But Medicare for all, says Schultz, is “not American.” Elizabeth Warren has proposed taxes on the wealthy that are squarely in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt; Bloomberg says that they would turn us into Venezuela.
Where does the fanaticism of the centrists come from? Much of the explanation, I think, is sheer vanity.
Both pundits and plutocrats like to imagine themselves as superior beings, standing above the political fray. They want to think of themselves as standing tall against extremism right and left. Yet the reality of American politics is asymmetric polarization: extremism on the right is a powerful political force, while extremism on the left isn’t. What’s a would-be courageous centrist to do?
The answer, all too often, is to retreat into a fantasy world, almost as hermetic as the right-wing, Fox News bubble. In this fantasy world, social democrats like Harris or Warren are portrayed as the second coming of Hugo Chávez, so that taking what is actually a conservative position can be represented as a brave defense of moderation.
But that’s not what is really happening, and the rest of us have no obligation to indulge centrist delusions.
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