April 11, 2010
No One Is to Blame for Anything
Greenspan was testifying to the commission trying to pry loose the still incomplete story of how the American economy was driven at full speed into its iceberg. He was eager to portray himself as an innocent bystander to forces beyond his control. In his rewriting of history, his clout in
That, of course, is not true. In last Sunday’s Times, one of those who predicted the bubble’s burst — Michael Burry, an investor chronicled in “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis — told in detail of how Greenspan and others in power “either willfully or ignorantly aided and abetted” the reckless boom and the ensuing bust. But Greenspan is nothing if not a representative leader of his time. We live in a culture where accountability and responsibility are forgotten values. When “mistakes are made” they are always made by someone else.
This syndrome is hardly limited to the financial sector. The
Such is our current state of national fecklessness that the gold medal for prompt contrition by anyone on the public stage belongs, by default, to David Letterman. He wasted little time in telling a national audience point blank that he had done “something stupid,” hurt those he loved and had a “responsibility” to “try to fix it.” In the
Woods’s apologetic Masters press conference last week came only after months of stalling, sponsor defections and well-publicized “rehab.” Along the way he briefly hired Ari Fleischer, the former Bush press secretary, to help manage his mess. Fleischer is not the only Bush spin artist to re-emerge as a hired damage-control hand in the post-Bush era. Dan Bartlett, a former presidential counselor, is a honcho at Public Strategies, the company recently enlisted by Goldman Sachs to help erase the indelible tattoo of “a great vampire squid” imprinted on its image by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone.
Former Bush propagandists will never lack for work in this climate. It’s remarkable how often apologists for Wall Street’s self-inflicted calamity mirror the apologists for
That, of course, is no more true than Greenspan’s claim that “everyone” was ignorant of the potentially catastrophic dangers in the securitization of subprime mortgages. There were dissenters in the press, intelligence agencies and Congress who did doubt the W.M.D. evidence and asked tough questions akin to those asked by financial apostates like Michael Burry during the housing bubble. But these dissenting voices were either ignored, ridiculed or censored in the feverish rally to war just as voices like Burry’s were marginalized in the feverish rally of the Dow.
In the crash’s aftermath, those who created, sold and hyped mortgage-backed securities and exotic derivatives (“financial weapons of mass destruction,” as Warren Buffett called them) are just as eager to escape accountability as those who peddled Saddam’s nonexistent nukes. In an appearance at the 92nd Street Y in New York last month, the former Citigroup guru Robert Rubin floated the same talking points as Greenspan. He described Wall Street’s meltdown as “a crisis that virtually nobody saw coming,” citing regulators, auditors, analysts and commentators. It seems they were all the passive dupes of AAA ratings from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s on toxic subprime assets, just as all those Iraq cheerleaders were innocently victimized by the bad C.I.A. intelligence on Saddam’s assets.
No top player in the Bush administration has taken responsibility for his or her role in selling faulty intelligence products without exerting proper due diligence. There have been few unequivocal mea culpas from those who failed in their oversight roles during the housing bubble either — whether Greenspan, the Bush Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson or Timothy Geithner in his pre-Obama incarnation leading the New York Fed.
In his own testimony before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission last week, Rubin took no responsibility for his record, as Clinton Treasury secretary, in opening the floodgates of deregulation that would fatten his wallet in his post-Washington migration to Citigroup. Nor did he own up to his role as a proselytizer for increased risk at that mammoth bank, where the bad bets would ultimately require a $45 billion taxpayers’ bailout. Rubin maintains that he had no significant operational responsibility as chairman of Citigroup’s executive committee — a role that paid him well over $100 million while there. But as Roger Lowenstein writes in his new book, “The End of Wall Street,” Rubin’s responsibilities did include writing a letter to shareholders in early 2007 for the Citigroup annual report. In sharp contrast to Jamie Dimon’s contemporaneous letter to shareholders at JPMorgan Chase — which darkly confronted potential “negative scenarios” from “recent industry excesses” — Rubin glossed over any gathering clouds.
Last week Rubin testified he “deeply” regretted what happened, but his invocation of collective guilt — “we all bear responsibility” — deflected any accounting for his own individual actions. Even Blagojevich did better than this in his new role as a contestant on the reality show “Celebrity Apprentice.” When Donald Trump “fired” him a week ago, the former
Obama has been less forceful in stewarding a new era of responsibility when it comes to adjudicating unresolved misdeeds in the previous White House. “Turn the page” is his style, even if at times to a fault. Many of the Bush national security transgressions, including the manipulation of the case for war, are rapidly receding into history and
The president will not have the luxury of mass amnesia when it comes to the recent economic past. The tax-free
Both as policy and politics, a serious reckoning for those who gamed the system is a win-win. Yet the fear that the Obama administration is protecting its friends persists. On the same morning that Rubin testified last week, Eamon Javers of Politico wrote about his continued influence on his many acolytes in the White House. That includes Geithner, whom Rubin talked with repeatedly in the weeks before the president released his financial regulatory reform proposal last June.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs