March 24, 2009

The Bailout War II: Too Big To Fail


(See also the rest of the five-part series)


In the classic Mel Brooks comedy-western Blazing Saddles, the new sheriff arrives in town only to find the townsfolk ready to lynch him. He puts a gun to his own head and, talking about himself in the third person, threatens to shoot himself if they don’t let him as kidnapper/hostage go. They townspeople believe him: “I don’t think he’s bluffing!” He escapes to marvel over how gullible they were.
Today we have a whole industry making the same threat, except they threaten not only to destroy themselves but the whole American economy. The response of America’s public elites has been the same as in the movie. “I don’t think he’s bluffing.” But this is no comedy.
Since this crisis began we’ve been living in fear. The specter which looms over us is called “Too Big To Fail”. This concept is seldom treated as a concept, and almost never questioned. It is accepted on faith and in fear. It was peddled by the same administration whose only idea, ever, was to monger fear. Even though the media and the cognoscenti had been burned so many times by the Bush administration’s lies, and even though this latest threat followed the exact patterns which stampeded us into the Patriot Act and Iraq, and even though the same interests as before stood to profit here, they were still as gullible as ever and have been first the Bush and now Obama administrations’ water carriers right on down the line.
I believe TBTF is a classical Big Lie. Even if it were true, could any of the proposed solutions really solve such a problem? And if it is true, why does there seem to be so little will to solve it in a way which would ensure we are never so vulnerable again? Surely any good-faith plan to temporarily prop up the TBTF banks would include a plan to carefully and with all deliberate speed dismantle these entities such that we would never again be in this position.
Yet it is clear no one in the power structure has such a thought. The very personnel who express such fear and loathing over our helpless predicament are the same who seem content with the TBTF institutional model, and more often they seem intent on further consolidating and aggravating it. For that reason we must consider the possibility that out of ideology and greed they want America in the grip of TBTF. If that’s the case, we must also ask if TBTF is simply an ideologically motivated lie. Beyond this we should ask, what kind of world do we want to live in? What are we trying to preserve, that it’s worth living as a slave, paying protection to boardroom thugs, all for the sake of what? Cheap junk from China?
The basic notion of TBTF is that if the likes of AIG, Citi, BofA and others were allowed to go bankrupt, as they certainly would if they hadn’t been propped up with prodigious sums of taxpayer money, the effects of this would reverberate to other giant institutions, weakening or collapsing them as well, and out through other big corporations, and down through smaller banks, pension funds, consumer lending, etc. to hit every individual, while the failure of savings institutions would bankrupt the FDIC. The government’s only option would be to run the printing presses or default on monumental guarantees, either way destroying the dollar. It would be the end of civilization as we know it. (Of course much of this is happening anyway in spite of the bailouts.)
It’s a harrowing picture. Is it true? If this really is what will happen when this massive inverted pyramid built on bubbles and debt finally comes crashing down, then shouldn’t our priority be to build firewalls against it? Instead of obsessing on the status of all this toxic paper, talking of good banks and bad banks, shouldn’t we instead be bolstering local and regional lenders, providing them with “facilities”, helping them unwind their entanglements with the Wall Street monstrosity? Shouldn’t we be dismantling these radioactive structures as quickly as we can do with any level of reasonable care? Since the government evidently has $trillions available, shouldn’t this be used to start brand new local and regional education networks to train a new workforce of relocalized small farmers, small craftsmen, small factory workers, small distributors? Perhaps even help launch regional and local currencies? Shouldn’t the stimulus be directed toward all these endeavors, which clearly look ahead to a future in a world where exponential debt, suburban sprawl, consumerism and profligate fossil fuel use can no longer serve as the basis for an economy or a civilization? That no one among the powers that be sees things in any way other than the opposite is strong evidence of their bad faith.
To properly judge the motivation of the bailout policy, we must go back to how this came about. We must consider how the same cadres who preach TBTF are those who constructed the system in the first place. The financialization of the economy goes back to the 70s. Since the dollar was detached from gold and set loose as the free-floating reserve currency of globalization and petrodollar recycling, while the manufacturing economy of America was hollowed out and the production offshored to an ever more exploited third world work force, the elite level of the American economy has mostly engaged in rent-seeking. It wove a fantastic web of interconnections, games of chance, tricks and cons, cash flows, inflating bubbles here, preying on the aftermath of burst bubbles or otherwise gutted economies there. All the while it encouraged a massive accumulation of addiction to debt, to the point that all of America’s alleged growth over the past decade has been the result of debt and bubbles. Take those away, and America has been in recession throughout this century. As the final ingredient in this witches’ brew, we had deregulation to the point of anarchy.
While the whole process may not have been planned out step by step, the basic goal was always the same: maximum size, concentration, interdependence, and efficiency. It was the most precariously perched, least robust system imaginable. Even the slightest thing going wrong would crash it. So as delusional as many of the participants became, it’s not credible that they gave no thought to the crash contingency. “TBTF” was a planned campaign.
When the financial crisis reached critical mass with the imminent fall of AIG the TBTF machine went into action. Paulson and Bernanke sounded the cry, “Stampede!” Fear seared it in. They told a Congressional delegation if Paulson wasn’t made a literal financial dictator “by Monday you won’t have an economy”. Although the people were more skeptical, elites everywhere, panicked further by the terrorism of the stock market, leapt on board the bailout train. Since then no one has seen an alternative to shovelling hundreds of $billions, and now $trillions, and soon tens of $trillions, into an ever more hellish, more gaping crematorium, and no one sees an end to it.
Today, even as the “new” Geithner/retreaded Paulson plan is being batted about, we should ask a few questions about the status of TBTF as an economic concept. A major concern is how to unwind AIG’s CDS boondoggle. But here’s something I don’t understand about this. If these bets were never supposed to pay off, as the dogma of the perpetual bubble held, then shouldn’t that have been factored/priced into the system? Weren’t those who bet on failure more like typical casino gamblers, just having fun, betting on long-shots, while other buyers were buying for the rationalistic purpose of evading reserve requirements? My point is, why should it crash the economy if we just declared all CDS contracts held by bailed-out companies, or contracts that were offshored, void? Granted, the banks were absurdly overleveraged thanks in part to the CDS scam, but we have that problem anyway. Why are the CDSs in themselves a problem? It seems like an ideological lie, peddled in tandem with the tantrums of the stock market, to scare the people into allowing public money to be used to pay off these bets in full.
Similarly, as some have commented, this all seemed new last Fall. Perhaps people overreacted to Lehman. But today any reasonable person has been contemplating the destruction of AIG, Citi, BofA and others for over six months. So if the TBTF exposure ever did exist, why should it still exist? Surely most participants could have decoupled by now (while anyone who could have unwound at a reasonable loss but hung on in expectation of a taxpayer bailout should be treated as an asocial element).
And, if banks really were on the verge of failure, they would’ve used the bailout money to forestall this. If they aren’t going to lend it as promised, why haven’t they used it to buy the toxic assets from themselves and in that way cleanse their balance sheets? Instead they’ve used it for bonuses, parties, golfing, airplanes, mergers and acquisitions, or just hoarded it. How do any of these keep you from “failing”? How do they help the economy as a whole?
So TBTF was used to stampede America into submission to a massive redistribution of wealth from the public to the very same criminal elite who profited so obscenely in the buildup to the crisis and then set it off. It was the classical pattern of disaster capitalism: trigger the disaster; confuse, terrorize and stampede the people; apply the shock treatment; carry out the corporatist coup. Although they sold the first TARP as a stimulus to lending, they moved immediately to their real purpose. While no lending materialized, word got out that Treasury was encouraging the big banks to use the money for acquisitions. TBTF was really about helping the big get bigger, the rich get richer, and to wipe out the smaller and not-so-rich. Is the encouragement of further structural concentration the action of anyone who truly believes and fears that things are “too big to fail”?
So we’re embarked upon a program of endless cash injections, sweetheart loans, loan guarantees, every kind of subsidy and direct loot conveyance, as all the while first Paulson/Bush and now Geithner/Obama try to figure out how to fulfill every profit expectation of the banks holding this toxic paper,no matter how much loss has to be socialized. Now Geithner even wants to use the FDIC to leverage a bailout bubble, AIG-style, in his desperate attempt to serve the banks. All of this has been shrouded in as much illegal secrecy as the executive branch can manage. Obama is now continuing with what Naomi Klein called “Bush’s most creative innovation: no risk capitalism”. The goal is a kind of permanent corporatist revolution to complement the permanent imperialist war abroad. The two brand names Too Big To Fail and Global War On Terror are parallel and corollary, and both are intended to be the never-ending Long War.
How can we resist this? The first thing is to ask ourselves, are we willing to pay this price? Even if it were possible to salvage the existing system at the price of paying this protection money and having to live permanently under the thumb of these gangsters, would it be worth it? Would a human being desire to live this way? Are we willing to pay this price? Or just like the War on Terror, is it another form of throwing away our freedom for the mirage of “security”?
To anyone who doubts any of this, who claims to believe in Too Big To Fail in good faith, the question is simple: What is your plan to dismantle the TBTF structures and ensure that Never Again will any such structure exist to threaten us. These things are a clear and present danger to all economic and social stability. No one can in good faith wish for their propagation, or wish to pay the terrible price of their continued existence.
If we can accept the unsustainability of the exponential growth economy and the malevolence of TBTF; if we see how this is a path we cannot take and must not wish to take; we could take another look at the world. We could see ways to rebuild the future and build a new, revitalized America, centered on a relocalized, truly productive, truly fulfilling economy.
The financial crash could yet prove to have served a creative purpose if it alerts us to our predicament. These institutions are not our friends and they do not wish us well. They want to condemn us forever to the road of serfdom. If instead the detonation they’ve triggered can cast a light on a different trail where we retake control of ourselves and our futures, it will not have been in vain. 

%d bloggers like this: