The insane GOP game of Deregulation Russian Roulette

Kevin Kamberg

Peter L. Bernstein, a financial consultant, economic historian and the editor of the Economics & Portfolio Strategy newsletter posed a significant question in Saturday's NYT: What’s Free About Free Enterprise?:

A huge bailout plan is being hammered out in Washington precisely to avert this kind of economic calamity. The plan is needed, and it needs to be put in place quickly. But at the same time, we need to ask how the financial system came to require a rescue of this magnitude.

I don't see how any rational person could look at this mess and not see the grimy fingerprints of deregulation as well as lax enforcement (and the naked greed which fuels both) all over this present crisis.

Naturally, a plan of this magnitude has stirred a storm of commentary, but two important potential results deserve more attention than they have received.

The first is the risk of moral hazard within the bailout itself. That is, if government is going to make good so many losses throughout the system, why would anyone set limits on future risk-taking? The situation could turn into a free-for-all that makes the recent disregard of risk look like child’s play.

The second problem is more philosophical, involving what the bailout plan reveals about the functioning of the free enterprise system. This raises disturbing questions. Although I agree with President Bush’s observation that "the risk of not acting would be far higher," we should be aware of the secondary effects of what we are getting into.

Bernstein focuses more on the moral hazard because, of the twin potential results this crisis presents, it's the one that is probably easiest to quantify.

Once the federal government declares, "Thou shalt not fail," there are no limits to how far future risk-takers will go. Who will see any need to pay attention to the possible consequences for the government’s budget, the market for its bonds, the taxpayers, its creditors and, indeed, the whole economic structure?

Bernstein echoes the sentiment expressed by the Hartford Courant's Rick Green the day before when he toured the seized 7,328-square-foot, mid-century mansion of Wall Street "uber-swindler" Michael Lauer during the fed's open house in preparation for a tax forclosure auction.

So on the rotting, moldy deck, next to the crumbling outdoor bar, I struck up a conversation with a neighbor, a man also curious about greed.

"No names!" said the chatty physician who lives next door. "It's guilt by association."

"I don't like these excesses, the money to be made at any price. It reminds me of the '80s," he offered. "When they do something like this, what are they thinking? Deceiving people is not right."

And, I wondered, are we somehow rewarding this greed when we fork over $700 billion to bail out the reckless, risky behavior of Wall Street?

Isn't that the open question on the minds of the huge majority of my fellow Americans right now?

Bernstein concludes with a crucial question:

As we move into the future, and as the crisis finally passes into history, how will we deal with this earth-shaking blow to the most basic principle of our economic system? I do not know how to answer that question. But we need to ask it.

My answer would be that we do what this great country has always done and keep or invent what works and toss what doesn't work.

I see no reason why unfettered free market economics ought to be any more sacrosanct than human slavery, forced child labor or the legal status of women as mere chattel, to do with as men saw fit, used to be.

If Ivan Boesky and Sam Waksal, Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Kozlawsky, Andrew Fastow and Jeff Skilling, Michael Lauer and the Rigas boys have taught us nothing else, they've taught us that greed is not good. The legal distinction between securities fraud and allowed arbitrage of the type which precipitated this current crisis is moot in the real world economy where it's always the little guy who gets stuck paying the bill when greed outstrips common sense. After all, insider trading and other assorted forms of securities fraud weren't always illegal. And even when they were the feds often studiously looked the other way, as Ivan "greed is good" Boesky knew only too well.

Former Securities and Exchange Commissioner Harvey J. Goldschmid, now a law professor at Columbia University puts it succinctly,

"We've got to have the most dramatic rethinking of our regulatory structure since the New Deal".

As James J. Cramer noted almost exactly five years ago in New York magazine,

Somewhere, though, in some high school or middle school, another generation is oblivious to the scandals and the crimes. A decade and a half from now, I suspect, we’ll be due for a new tsunami of crime, as these prosecutions fade in memory or fail to get embossed into the brains of those too young to pay attention.

That's exactly what will happen if we fail to learn the lessons of the last 20 years.

It's time to stop playing the insane Republican game of Deregulation Russian Roulette. As the old lay definition says, trying the same thing over and over expecting different results is insane.

  • Chris #12 (unverified)

    I believe that neoliberals in BOTH parties have been pushing deregulation for decades. Remember the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999?

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    At bottom, there's no such thing as a free market, and never has been. 'Free trade' as it's understood is always dependent upon a foundation of societal and governmental support.

    Some investors and actors in the marketplace want to be free to operate with as few constraints as possible, which shouldn't be surprising. I think everyone gets the idea there. So they turn that desire into a philosophy, with some supporting arguments related to the efficient allocation of capital, though efficiency and a lack of regulation are hardly the same thing.

    If you've been espousing a free market philosophy your whole life in order to advance your business interests, and electing candidates who help your interests, then you're in a public relations pickle in times like these. All of sudden, massive government intervention of a particular type (cash bailout), in very much in your interest. Doh.

    I think it's a distraction right now, this debate about free markets and regulation. I think the real questions that should command are attention are: 1) what is the nature of the mess we're in and 2) what is the best way to fix it. We should be beyond any ideas about ideological purity.

  • Larry (unverified)

    "A huge bailout plan is being hammered out in Washington precisely to avert this kind of economic calamity. The plan is needed, and it needs to be put in place quickly."


    Reps Wu, Blumen... and Defazio all voted against this bailout. All D's.

    Didn't they get the Pelosi memo? The Barney Frank instructions to vote Yea?

    Or did Walden corrupt their thinking?

    I am confused, I thought that the D's wanted to pass the bailout bill.

  • RichW (unverified)

    "I am confused, I thought that the D's wanted to pass the bailout bill."

    But watch the new bill become even more liberal to bring the recalcitrant Dems to back a more "main street" solution.

    The dems are still in the drivers seat here and Bush dare not veto a more liberal bill.

  • Sue Castner (unverified)

    I have a wacky idea: Next month, as those big bad mortgage brokers continue to feel the credit crunch, as 401(k)’s go from bad to WTF, as small business owners fail to meet already anemic payrolls with the holidays fast approaching, why don’t we ask Congress to put the lack of money where their mouths are?

    The economy can continue to falter and people in just about every industry will lose their jobs. It is estimated that even IF a compromise “bailout” is passed this week, approximately 100,000 jobs a month will disappear through the end of the year.

    For members of Congress, their “industry” is not affected by such staggering downturns in the economy. Does that make sense? To anyone?

    So let’s see if Congress can truly feel our pain. For every 50,000 jobs lost, each member of the House and Senate should lay off one staffer. Let them decide who should go on unemployment. Who is dispensable. Who deserves a blue Christmas. Maybe then the partisan nonsense will dissipate and they can get back to the business of helping those who elected them instead of looking at this mess as the embodiment of that Chinese character meaning both crisis and opportunity. As their net worth's start looking like their IQ’s, maybe something will shake loose. Like common sense.

  • r. james (unverified)

    I wonder if we can make Franklin Raines and Jim Johnson pay back their illegally obtained bonuses?

    "Raines [was] swept out of office in December 2004 in the accounting fiasco at Fannie Mae. Two years later, the company announced a restatement for 2001 through June 30, 2004, that erased $6.3 billion in previously reported profit. Raines' total compensation from 1998 through 2004 was $91.1 million, including some $52.6 million in bonuses, according to OFHEO."

    Not bad work, if you can get it. Let's do the math, shall we? $91.1 million over six years; $15.2 million a year for doing what exactly? Sowing the seeds of our current financial / credit problems. If you or I committed the same "financial irregularities" while running our companies or paying our taxes, we'd be in prison.

    Of course in 2004 many House Republicans were attempting to gain more control over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac but were resisted by Democrats who heaped praise upon Raines and company.

    I particularly like what Rep. Maxine Waters (D) had to say, "Frankly, we were trying to fix something that wasn't broke. Mr. Chairman, we do not have a crisis at Freddie Mac and in particular at Fannie Mae, under the outstanding leadership of Mr. Frank Raines."

    Rep. Meeks (D) was just as insightful, "There's been nothing that was indicated that's wrong with Fannie Mae."

    And let us not forget the venerable Rep. Barney Frank (D), "I have seen nothing in here that suggests the safety and soundness (of Fannie Mae / Freddie Mac) are at issue."

    And this gem from Raines himself, "These assets (sub-prime mortgages) are so riskless that their capital for holding them should be under 2%."

    Yes, Mr. Raines, let's put the taxpayers of this country on the hook for over-leveraging sub-prime mortgages! No wonder SOME (not all!) Democrats are saying, "Now is not a time for blame." Yes, how convenient for you. That would be like Bush saying now is not the time for placing blame on the Iraq war.

    And while we're at it, let's put Barney Frank, the man who buried his head in the sand in 2004, in charge of this "bailout."

    Before you died-in-the-wool Democrats begin the blasting that is sure to happen, please understand this is not an indictment of ALL Democrats nor an endorsement of ALL Republicans. But the facts remain, certain Republicans were calling for oversight and reform in 2004 and were rebuked by certain Democrats. I applaud the Democrats who are standing up today against this "bailout," save for the few far, far left wackos mentioned by RichW who are holding out hope for an even bigger bailout / welfare package.

    I can't resist just one more quote, this one from Rep. Lacy Clay (D), "I get the feeling that the markets are not worried about the safety and soundness of Fannie Mae, as OFHEO says it is, but of course the markets are not political."

    And if you have the stomach for it, why not watch the entire video link above and hear what President Clinton had to say about the issue.

  • anon (unverified)

    Umm, didn't Bill Clinton go along with the deregulation program? How come y'all lay it on the GOP?

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    What was Bill Clinton doing when Ronald Reagan was preaching deregulation in the early 80s?

    Did a Democrat preach deregulation prior to Reagan?

    The answer to those questions is the answer to your question.

  • Greg D. (unverified)

    If the economy of the US falls into the hands of undereducated political hacks, we are all screwed. Do you want want Billy "Single Wide" Smith (R - Kansas) to dictate the future of the stock market? Do you want to turn your 401k over to Sarah "God Told Me To Do It" Palin (Moron - Alaska)? Time to gas up the RV and buy some ammo.

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    Umm, didn't Bill Clinton go along with the deregulation program? How come y'all lay it on the GOP?

    After years and years and YEARS of hearing Republicans argue that Democrats wanted to regulate big business into extinction, it is fantastically comical to hear them now - squealing like stuck pigs, "You deregulated too! You did! You did!"

    Sure, some Democrats went along with some deregulatory moves as part of a mixed strategy. Fine. But the utter abolishment of regulations is part and parcel of the conservative Republican ideology.

    The Republicans own this disaster.

  • Reality Randy (unverified)

    The rotten egg that is the CRA was laid by Carter, hatched by Clinton, and nurtured by congressional dems, but Nancy felt she needed to scold the GOP and castigate Bush. She claims no dem responsibility whatsoever.

    Obama is also deperately trying to distance himself, calling for more "oversight". This is all the more interesting as his chief economic advisors are two CEOs and a CFO from Fannie May, all under investigation for fraud. One of the CEOs, Jim Johnson, was even appointed by Obama to select his VP:

    Franklin Raines was a Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at Fannie Mae. Raines was forced to retire from his position with Fannie Mae when auditing discovered severe irregulaties in Fannie Mae's accounting activities. At the time of his departure The Wall Street Journal noted, " Raines, who long defended the company's accounting despite mounting evidence that it wasn't proper, issued a statement late Tuesday conceding that "mistakes were made" and saying he would assume responsibility as he had earlier promised. News reports indicate the company was under growing pressure from regulators to shake up its management in the wake of findings that the company's books ran afoul of generally accepted accounting principles for four years." Fannie Mae had to reduce its surplus by $9 billion.

    Raines left with a "golden parachute valued at $240 Million in benefits. The Government filed suit against Raines when the depth of the accounting scandal became clear. . The Government noted, "The 101 charges reveal how the individuals improperly manipulated earnings to maximize their bonuses, while knowingly neglecting accounting systems and internal controls, misapplying over twenty accounting principles and misleading the regulator and the public. The Notice explains how they submitted six years of misleading and inaccurate accounting statements and inaccurate capital reports that enabled them to grow Fannie Mae in an unsafe and unsound manner." These charges were made in 2006. The Court ordered Raines to return $50 Million Dollars he received in bonuses based on the miss-stated Fannie Mae profits.

    Tim Howard - Was the Chief Financial Officer of Fannie Mae. Howard "was a strong internal proponent of using accounting strategies that would ensure a "stable pattern of earnings" at Fannie. In everyday English - he was cooking the books. The Government Investigation determined that, "Chief Financial Officer, Tim Howard, failed to provide adequate oversight to key control and reporting functions within Fannie Mae," On June 16, 2006, Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., asked the Justice Department to investigate his allegations that two former Fannie Mae executives lied to Congress in October 2004 when they denied manipulating the mortgage-finance giant's income statement to achieve management pay bonuses. Investigations by federal regulators and the company's board of directors since concluded that management did manipulate 1998 earnings to trigger bonuses. Raines and Howard resigned under pressure in late 2004. Howard's Golden Parachute was estimated at $20 Million.

    Jim Johnson - A former executive at Lehman Brothers and who was later forced from his position as Fannie Mae CEO. A look at the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight's May 2006 report on mismanagement and corruption inside Fannie Mae, and you'll see some interesting things about Johnson. Investigators found that Fannie Mae had hidden a substantial amount of Johnson's 1998 compensation from the public, reporting that it was between $6 million and $7 million when it fact it was $21 million." Johnson is currently under investigation for taking illegal loans from Countrywide while serving as CEO of Fannie Mae.
    Johnson's Golden Parachute was estimated at $28 Million.

    WHERE ARE THEY NOW? FRANKLIN RAINES? Raines works for the Obama Campaign as Chief Economic Advisor TIM HOWARD? Howard is also a Chief Economic Advisor to Obama JIM JOHNSON? Johnson hired as a Senior Obama Finance Advisor and was selected to run Obama's Vice Presidential Search Committee

    It gets better.

    As recently as two months ago, Obama made much of his legal experience in Chicago as he sought to boost his resume. What cause was Obama pursuing?

    He was a lawyer in a class-action suit against Citicorp which forced them to accept ever more marginal mortgage applications under the CRA.

    The linked original Sun-Times article is worth reading. Very interesting, what a "community organizer" does. Motor-Voter, Tony Rezko...

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Reality Randy, like many Republicans, has so internalized Lee Atwater style racial politics that he is blind to the obvious racism of the piece he references. The real estate bubble was caused by massive loans on unrealistic values, not by minority individuals being able to borrow on the same basis as whites. This scurrilous attack should disgust any decent person. Shame on you, Reality Randy.

  • RR (unverified)

    Oh Tom, What a funny guy you are. So that's what you got from all of that? That's it?
    A scurrilous attack? Nothing more? The real estate bubble was caused by massive loans on unrealistic values made to people who should not and would not have qualified if it were not for the CRA laid by Carter, hatched by Clinton, and nurtured by congressional dems. Your not so slick effort to cast this realization as some black versus white thing is disgusting for any honest person paying attention to the truth. And how is it that none of you apparently have any problems with ACORN? And Kari, there's regulation and then there's regulating that mandates lenders to make bad loans. If you stick to the topic of this particular "regulating" of bank loans you'll arrive at the same reality I listed above. If you choose instead to sway off into the theoretical notion that all Republicans are for no reglulations then you are not addressing the issue congress and the country are now facing.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    No, I have no problem with CRA, but I do have a problem with politics riding on racist undercurrents.

    Conservatives blame the housing crisis on a 1977 law that helps-low income people get mortgages. It's a useful story for them, but it isn't true.

    CRA didn't bring about the reckless lending at the heart of the crisis. Just as sub-prime lending was exploding, CRA was losing force and relevance. And the worst offenders, the independent mortgage companies, were never subject to CRA -- or any federal regulator. Law didn't make them lend. The profit motive did.

    It's a new version of an old story, that those darn dark-skinned people are destroying the fabric of our nation. If they're not fouling the purity of our white women or corrupting our youth with their jungle music, they're taking out loans they can't pay back. It's stupid and hateful garbage, and you are promoting it.

  • RW (unverified)

    Racist Randy, erm..sorry: Reality Randy -

    I am offended! You left the rest of us out again! Black/White, Black/White... sounds like a martial tune marched out ad nauseum.

    Please remember to include at least two of the following next time: indigenous tribals; South Pacific Islanders; Latinos; Hispanics; non-White Hispanics; Asian; etc.

    There's lots of us out here to choose from, we feel mostly left out of your mix.

    Many thanks for your help in this matter.

    Yours in non sequitur, Bex

  • RR (unverified)

    Tom, What partisen jibberish. Because every mortgage company followed CRA's lead it is without blame? Your juvenile spin to cast the critisism of CRA and Democrats as some racisit garbage is laughable but typical progressive manipulation. And what, no spin or comment on ACORN? Again typical.
    I thought you progressives were all about fighting voter fraud, phony registrations, forged signatures and rigged elections?
    Or is ACORN somehow your own "getting even" with perceived Republican voting scandals?

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    You promote racist politics. I'll let others decide whether that is a juvenile observation.

    As to ACORN, if they've broken laws, they should be accountable for that. Such behavior does make it less commendable to work to eliminate mortgage redlining.

    And this:

    Because every mortgage company followed CRA's lead it is without blame?

    is verbal crap.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Native Americans cannot even get loans to buy the property we stole from them.

  • RW (unverified)

    Yes, Thomas. As you speak this, my throat closes. My eyes grow hot: not with anger. It’s with a kind of lasting sorrow that burns with the determination to DO something. I see my families and how they live. How me and my own son did live. It burns like a cold, ulcerating sorrow in the gut... and I am fortunate that I am part of a larger family that all together will make one piece of it right. We seek to buy back a special piece of the Black Hills from a man who thinks he owns it. As good in heart as he is, he seeks to sell it: we have first chance over those who have already offered cash in hand. We as a tiospaye are determined to raise the thousands required to buy back just one little piece of the Black Hills to return it to a man and his family of the Crazy Horse line. This ceremonial family has traveled incessantly for over thirty years to do Ceremony for the people. Directly related to Crazy Horse, one son carries his wanagi altar, his medicine, lives just as Crazy Horse did, he and his family. This land we seek to win back and return to the hands of the family of Crazy Horse and medicine men generations only told, not written down… it is held privately by a man who would give it to us if only he did not view it as a way to ensure his family has money when he is gone. The man is ill. And so he cannot bring himself to do what is right freely and with an open hand. And yet, we are offered first chance to get back what was taken, and establish the vision Joseph Chasing Horse had 33 years ago. The Elderlies will tell us what must be done, all will be done THEIR way and this will be a place that honors and holds to them. Lakota language village, ceremonies done as they always were and as the elderlies say it must be done. The Medicine Men will come from all over to Dance the Great Lodge under a Common Man. At last there will be a place for this man and his companions to rest, to attend to duties around certain Sacreds, and to receive the people who need help, who want to Vision Quest, who want to pray.
    This is the last place Crazy Horse camped before he was murdered and his belongings, especially his Sacreds, were thrown into a fire and burned under watch. This camp is Crazy Horse’ favorite camp. We who live mostly at just above minimum wage are selling our jewelries, pledging our pay, putting raffles up at pow wows and asking others to listen with their hearts to see if they want to give a little too – that in a season or two we might rescue this place with the ancient tipi rings still there; the spring that never runs dry; the Vision Quest sites and the place waiting for a special Sundance to finally be made real…

    Yes, Thomas. The People endure. And are rarely mentioned with comprehension.

  • RR (unverified)

    Tom, What racist policies? Try to grasp what has happened. Because of the CRA banks were threatened by the feds to make more loans to less and unqualified borrowers and that government interference led to the sub prime mortgage meltdown.
    The only thing race about that is your partisan desire to paint this acknowledgment and criticism as having a racist basis. Well BS is what you're peddling.

    And the fact that more Democrats sided with the lobbyist's bailout than did Republicans makes you even more partisan motivated. Reality doesn't square with your pitch.

    And what do you mean "if" ACORN broke laws?

    Are you that partisan? You don't bother getting informed, even the slightest, about ACORN's scandals?

    Too busy cooking up racist claims?

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    Sounds like you did not read the American Prospect article I referenced.

    To blame a law that decreased discrimination against minorities, when that law is not to blame, is, plain and clear, racist politics.

    Mentioning ACORN's misdeeds makes it no less racist.

  • Chris #12 (unverified)

    The Republicans own this disaster.

    If only that were true.

    As I suggested out in the very first comment on this thread, I believe that it's not the GOP that owns this, but neoliberals from both parties, including your hero Bill Clinton, who pushed the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999.

  • RW (unverified)

    My comment above is not non sequitur.

    This obscenely ridiculous outcome to corruption, materialism, greed... was so plainly on the way. ALL who took part from top to bottom are to blame.

    You who flipped houses relentlessly and BITCHED when the home ma willed to you free and clear would no longer fetch obscenity sums in a slightly decreasing market? SHAME on you. Greed. You are as much to fault for this as the relentless financiers at the other end of this mess.

    More than one Administration had hands in the making of it, the corruption came from both sides of this single aisle they share. Yet none dare to simply bear their part of the shame and humbly correct it.

    Sheesh I could go on. My post above was about the ones who had it stolen and could not get a loan to get a piece of it back if they wanted. An historical site with bones and magic in it, KNOWN as sacred to and belonging to The People, written in the caucasian books as the Real Deal!

    And STILL it is offered up to developers instead of given back to the people who lived, died, prayed and healed there, exist in those Lifeways to this day!

    My post above is about those of us who stopped hurting ourselves by dreaming of a little home once it was evident it could never be had.

    Civiletti is stating so clean what I bleed from the ears.

    This emotionalism is mirrored perfectly in finger-pointing verbiage from people who are emoting as atrociously as I, and with just as little erudition.

    Stop this blame and bait stuff, guys. Talk about what you expect out of the politicos in charge of your fate so as to fix it. Examine history in service to THIS, not in order to fix blame from your seat of limited understanding!

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    The Senate has cooked up a new rescue plan that includes a series of tax cuts. But that wasn't enough to get Republicans onboard. Oh no! A "compromise" was struck whereby almost none of the tax cuts are paid for.

    I am sick to death of "borrow and spend" Republicans! Especially after so many of them bitched about homebuyers buying more than they could afford as precipitating this financial crisis.

  • RW (unverified)

    Kevin: time for a drink. Let's just talk about Romantic Love Ideals and Paul Newman films till this bathtub drains, eh.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Barack Obama and the Democrats are stealing the election. Massive voter fraud is being carried out, even as we speak, by their henchmen, known by the innocuous sounding Association for Community Organisations for Reform Now, or Acorn. Clever bastards.

    The only problem? Despite the screaming wall-to-wall coverage of "Democratic voter fraud in 11 swing states" as seen on Fox News and even the once-respectable CNN, none of it's true. None of it.

    The Republican voter fraud hoax


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