Let no man deceive you by any means: II Thessalonians 2:3
This is the final installment in our attempt to answer how the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression fueled by decades of financial deregulation turned into a full-throated defense by the Tea Party of the free market economy.
Capitalism can be a wonderful economic system. One of its weaknesses, however, is the boom and bust cycle. If you look at the economic history of this country, we have had boom and bust cycles since the beginning of our democracy. Some blame the cycles on the Fed, but the modern Federal Reserve Banking system was created in 1913 in response to the Financial Panic of 1907. Before the creation of the Fed, the country experienced 25 depressions. Since then, we’ve only had one. So the Fed must be doing something right. We DO continue to experience periods of expansion and contraction (recession) – 40 in all since 1940. Some recessions are mild and some, like the financial collapse of 2008, are catastrophic.
These cyclic economic periods are primarily triggered by private sector investment. As the economy grows there are natural pressures on prices, wages, and capital. Those inevitably lead to inflation and rising interest rates as demand exceeds supply. That increases the costs to expand as well as making it more expensive for consumers and businesses to purchase goods. As demand and expansion slow in reaction to increased prices, investor and consumer confidence wanes until expansion stops. Businesses cut back, individuals spend less and contraction begins. Businesses reduce their labor force. Prices, labor costs, and interest rates come down as supply exceeds demand. The contraction continues until costs become so low that new investment and a new cycle of growth starts. Recessions driven by contraction in the financial sector take longer to recover from because access to capital is a key factor in our investment driven economy.
Democracy and Capitalism
The problem that capitalism presents for a Democracy is that these cycles of expansion and contraction in an unregulated market can be extreme. Expansions can turn into economic bubbles. Economic bubbles are highly speculative periods where expansion is being driven by trading activity rather than production or consumption. When these bubbles inevitably burst, as was the case in the housing bubble, many innocent people can find themselves out of a job for no fault of their own. There is also an understandable outrage that the unregulated and sometimes illegal activities of a few greedy speculators end up hurting the much larger number of hard working people who WERE playing by the rules.
The normal reaction in a democracy is that the injured demand that the government do a better job preventing the sorts of excesses that lead to these severe economic downturns. The New Deal is a perfect example of this trade off. In return for preserving the basic tenants of capitalism after it ran amok in the 1920’s, FDR promised workers a social safety net. He also created a set of banking and investment regulations that until the 2000’s effectively prevented speculative bubbles to grow to a size that would threaten the economy.
The Great Recession
The financial collapse of 2008 was the result of a deregulated financial industry that created a bubble in the mortgage market. Financial deregulation started with Reagan, but continued in every subsequent administration through Bush II.
The 2008 financial collapse was broad, deep, and terrifying. The expected response from those who lost their jobs and their homes would have been a populist uprising against the free market economy in general and the deregulated financial industry in particular. Those individual traders whose irresponsible actions caused banks to stop lending would also have been in the line of fire. If it had followed the arc of the Great Depression, there would have been universal agreement that the free market was not able to regulate itself. People would have looked to government to step in and make sure something like this never happened again. Even Alan Greenspan who famously ignored all of the warning signs of the impending collapse because of his belief in the self-regulating forces of the free market, had to apologize to the American people.
“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
“You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the committee. “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?”
Mr. Greenspan conceded: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”
The populist outrage did occur. It began with the election of Barack Obama, but it got hijacked by movement conservatism and became the Tea Party.
The Wrong Villain
In the 2008 Presidential election, the Republican Party and the whole politics of free markets and deregulation were rejected by the voting public. The Republicans were famously the party that drove the economy into the ditch and had the temerity to ask for another turn behind the wheel. There were many who said that it would take decades for the party to earn back the trust of the voters. It was so bad that even the reliable Southern Strategy and wedge politics failed to prevent an African American liberal from Illinois from winning.
In the aftermath, the Republicans had a choice. They could move more to the center and remake themselves as a more moderate party, or they could double down on the methods that had worked so well for them in the past and become even more conservative.
They chose to double down on their old strategies. Minority leader Mitch McConnell said that his goal was to make Barack Obama a one term President. This appealed to his base on both racial and political terms.
Republicans thought they could use the government’s recovery legislation to accomplish that goal but they also needed someone to blame. They found the villain in all of those victims who lost their homes.
The famous Rick Santelli rant from the floor of the Chicago Board and Trade was the spark that lit this particular fire. He didn’t mention the mega-billion dollar entities that had conspired with government to rig the system in their favor at the expense of ordinary Americans. Instead the Santelli rant was directed against a (quite modest) government program to help distressed mortgage holders and against the so-called “losers” who couldn’t pay their mortgages. In Santelli’s self-serving logic, the traders on the floor who helped create this mess were the real victims.
This was a triumph of the old Big Tobacco PR tactic and the tried and true “Willie Horton” strategy. When your side is unpopular seek to redirect public ire toward other villains. Reagan’s fictitious welfare queens reappeared as poor black people who were sold “liar” loans.
Even though the TARP and other financial recovery methods were originally crafted by the Bush White House, Obama was held responsible because he implemented these policies in the first few months following his election.
Even though it was unscrupulous predatory mortgage lenders like Morgan Stanley who broke the law, lied to their customers, and recruited people who clearly could not afford mortgages with the promise of home ownership – conservative ire was redirected. It was focused squarely on greedy neighbors, buying too much house; or on the liberal state, which according to myth forced banks to hand out bad loans to poor people; or on society generally for tolerating debt at every level.
The (conservative) movement succeeded by capturing completely the one part of the story that was very clear: the bank bailouts, which instantly eclipsed the financial crisis proper when they happened and which immediately got people out of their armchairs sputtering with rage. The bailouts were not confusing. They were very clearly the deed of the federal government, apparently being operated by cronies of Wall Street. It was a spectacle of almost unbelievable corruption, the kind of thing that crushes the faith of a nation. What the public craved at that moment was a form of idealism that would allow us to scream a convincing “no” at the whole thing, and the free-market people—spotting the opportunity like any good entrepreneur—immediately stepped in and delivered exactly such an idealism. (Because, in a pure free-market system, they said, government would never rescue or bail out anyone. The market would decide who prospered and who failed.)
It didn’t matter that the bailout strategy actually worked. The global financial market melt-down did not become a depression. Trust WAS restored relatively quickly. The insolvent institutions were merged with the remaining stable institutions. The domestic auto industry was saved. The restructured companies led the country back out of recession. Five years later the stock market is hitting record highs. The government has fully divested itself of the remaining GM stock. The net cost to the taxpayers was a remarkably low $60B. In comparison, Reagan’s S&L crisis which was significantly less damaging to the economy cost six times as much to clean up.
But it didn’t matter. The Tea Party rage over the financial bailouts spilled over into deep opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the debt that the country was piling up as a result of high unemployment, low taxes, two wars, and an unfunded expansion of Medicare.
It also didn’t matter that the real financial risk was the 3x GDP growth rate in the cost of healthcare. The Affordable Care Act was the only option on the table to reduce this rate of growth and as a result reduce our potential long term unfunded liabilities. The Tea Party viewed it as another irresponsible expansion of government even though it actually saved $109B in its first decade.
It also didn’t matter that this administration committed to ending the wars that were putting a huge strain on our military and on the budget.
The Tea Party was focused on the poor and big government as the villains of the financial meltdown. The fantasy of a utopian free market promised equity, justice, and prosperity for those who played by the rules. The fact that we weren’t seeing this utopia emerge was the fault of government. Worse yet, our exploding debt was at least in part due to the burden that the poor and unemployed were placing on the social safety net.
Tea Party Irony
What should have started out as a populist backlash to the failure of our decades-long experiment in free market deregulation was transformed into a protest movement demanding MORE of the free market that caused the problem and even LESS of the government that is the only solution.
Rather than complain that the government failed to keep the FDR’s promise to workers, this protest movement rejected whole premise. It wasn’t that the social contract the FDR made with the prosperous to support a social safety net wasn’t working. It was that the prosperous were able to convince those who benefited most from the social safety net, that it wasn’t fair to continue to expect the “winners” in our economy to pay for it.
Movement conservatism was able to convince small business owners that they were the backbone of a sort of free market populism instead of in a life and death struggle with larger and better funded competitors. In this conservative scenario, it’s the heroic small business person pitted against the parasitic elites who acquire their power through education or unfair government influence. It was the elites that were making it difficult for all businesses, large and small, to enjoy the fruits of their labors. The practical effects of this free-market idealism, however, is to bolster the power of big business. Big business is the real beneficiary of small business’s long war on organized labor and government regulation. It is big business that regularly feeds at the trough of government contracts, subsidies, and tax breaks that the rest of us including small business pay for. It is also big business that seeks to create monopolies which make it impossible for small business to compete.
The ultimate irony is that the Tea Party’s drive for fiscal responsibility has hurt the very people who support that movement. The states with the greatest concentration of Tea Party participation are the states that get the most money from federal programs. These are the states that have the highest numbers of people receiving Social Security and Medicare. These are the states with the largest amounts of people dependent on defense spending. These are the states that send the least amount of federal taxes to Washington and get the most amount of money coming back into their economies. These are the states where according to Thomas Frank, voters to struck a blow against elitism and received in return a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining.
The ultimate irony is that in the Tea Party’s eyes, CEO’s are the heroes and government is the villain. The reality is that the majority of the unprecedented growth in wealth that has occurred over the last 25 years has been in CEO pay. That pay came from a direct transfer of wealth from working people into CEO salaries combined with historically low taxes on the wealthiest people in this country. Those statistics are not an accident. This is the direct result of government policy. Government has in fact done exactly what the Tea Party has requested. It allowed the free market to operate without limit. That free market methodically suppressed middle class wage growth even though productivity, working hours, and profits hit all time highs. Under free market rules, CEO’s decided to keep all of those gains for themselves because they could.
The Tea Party is the construct of the same political operatives and tactics that gave us decades of tobacco company products that both those companies and the government knew were addictive and deadly. It is the same political operatives who promised from Reagan to Bush that showering tax breaks on the rich would result in economic gains for everyone else.
The Tea Party professes a deeply flawed looking-glass ideology that is ultimately the product of big business self-interest. That agenda is a continuation of the same unregulated free market capitalism that caused the Great Recession, unprecedented growth in wealth, and the largest income inequality in our history.
This agenda includes policies which have lead to an economy where only the very rich prosper, yet those supporting the Tea Party continue to insist that government is the problem.
Government is not the problem
Government is the solution. It is the only power left in this economy to oppose the influence of corporations and the wealthy. You don’t get to vote for how a corporation operates. Yet the agenda of the Tea Party trusts these corporations more than the only organization that they CAN influence – our government.
They portray government as the big evil, when in fact, government is us. It is teachers, first responders, and any number of middle class people trying to do the best job that they can. None of those who make up our government even come close to the 100 million dollar salaries of our top CEO’s.
Instead the Tea Party has allowed themselves to be manipulated by the same forces which caused government to relax regulations and implement a policy of allowing the free market to govern itself.
The ultimate irony is that Karl Rove, who helped create the Tea Party, no longer has use for them. While libertarian Koch money continues to support Tea Party causes, Tea Party shutdown and default tactics have terrified business leaders. As a result, Rove’s Crossroads fundraising juggernaut has announced that they will support moderate Republican candidates to oppose Tea Party incumbents in the 2014 and 2016 elections. It appears that at least Republican business interests have found a new villain.
The uncomfortable truth is that, though Republicans had both the motive and the means to hijack the populist uprising caused by the 2008 financial meltdown, the Democrats deserve some credit for the birth of the Tea Party too. Next up, how the Democrats fumbled what should have been a golden moment to reassert the basic tenants of Democratic Populism. In other words, we have met the enemy and he is us.