Matt Stoller: Romney Could Be Better Than Obama for Wall Street Reform

Apr 27, 2012

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Matt Stoller joined Cenk Uygur last night on Current TV's

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Matt Stoller joined Cenk Uygur last night on Current TV's Viewpoint with Eliot Spitzer, where they discussed the presidential race and how it may effect efforts to end financial fraud and crack down on Wall Street. Surprisingly, Stoller thinks Wall Street reformers might have more success with Mitt Romney in the White House than they would if Barack Obama wins a second term. In the video below, he argues that "if you look at Mitt Romney's career, it's been about moving where the political winds are, and the interesting thing is that Barack Obama is far less flexible in terms of his policy approach than Mitt Romney has been." 

Matt says that there would be no surprises in Obama's second term when it comes to his relationship with the big banks. "We know what Barack Obama's policy architecture is, and it's to perpetuate these sort of fraud machines and to help them and to bail them out and to overrule and steamroll anyone in office who wants to take them on." He explains that while he doesn't believe Romney's policies would be any better, "I'm putting my hope in the public. The public has shown an unwillingness to take on Barack Obama. I think the public is far more willing to take on Mitt Romney, because Mitt Romney looks like a plutocrat, and they may say 'No, you have to justify your policies.'" In other words, while Romney might be naturally inclined to support his friends on Wall Street, he's also far more likely to bend to the will of the outraged electorate or pragmatic advisors. Matt argues that by contrast, Obama is "unwilling to be pushed in the right direction by people who know what they're doing" because he's "a neoliberal ideologue. He has a strong, rigid view on what is right, and he doesn't move, evidence be damned."

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Representative Bachus, FDIC and Voting Down Dodd-Frank's Resolution Authority

Apr 20, 2012Mike Konczal

So the House Republicans on the Financial Services Committee just voted to repeal "resolution authority."  What does this mean, and how can we compare it to previous actions by House Republicans?

So the House Republicans on the Financial Services Committee just voted to repeal "resolution authority."  What does this mean, and how can we compare it to previous actions by House Republicans?

A useful way of understanding both the financial crisis of 2008 and Dodd-Frank's response to it is through the idea of a "shadow banking system."  We have a set of regulatory rules, laws, practices and institutions from the New Deal that does well with the regular banking sector.  Over the past thirty years, a set of institutions started acting like banks without calling themselves banks, and thus did not have the same set of rules, laws and practices in place to regulate them as such.  Dodd-Frank's goal was to extend this regulatory framework to all "systemically risky financial institutions," or shadow banking institutions.

One of the main pillars of this is "resolution authority," which allows FDIC to takeover and wind-down a failing shadow bank.  Since the New Deal the FDIC can wind down a failing commercial bank without the system collapsing.  We found that putting commercial banks through bankruptcy was a disaster, so we created FDIC to allow a firm to fail and allocate losses in a way that mitigated panics and contagion.  Now the FDIC can use those powers on firms acting like banks but that are not hanging a "bank" sign on their window.  These powers include the ability to force big financial firms to write "living wills" to help with taking them down.

The FDIC has been making progress in formulating these powers.  They released a major report, The Orderly Liquidation of Lehman Brothers Holdings under the Dodd-Frank Act, which walks through how they would have handled 2008.  They've also answered conservative think tank critiques of resolution authority in what I think are correct and persuasive.

So when you hear people, especially on the right, criticizing Dodd-Frank's resolution authority your first step should be to analyze what they think of the FDIC more broadly.  Do they view it as a statist boot stamping on a human face forever?  Here's a Cato Handbook for Congress from 1997 arguing for the privatization of FDIC and mandating banks purchase private deposit insurance (perhaps from an exchange?).  Cato's 2001 call for privatizing FDIC is amazing for how disastrous every one of their assumptions and calls turned out to be in light of the financial crisis.  But, as they say, at least it's an ethos.

Representative Spencer Bachus (R - AL) is the current Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and just lead the Committee in a vote that, among many other things, repealed this resolution authority powers.  Bachus has argued "This authority is not a death panel for failed institutions...It is taxpayer-funded support for their creditors and counterparties.”

So where does Bachus stand on FDIC more broadly?  Here's the fascinating part: he lead a major 2002 move that expanded deposit insurance.  Bachus was the chief sponsor of the Federal Deposit Insurance Reform Act of 2002 which increased "the standard maximum amount of deposit insurance coverage from $100,000 to $130,000" and also adjusted it for inflation.

It's not clear why he supports FDIC when it comes to commercial banks but not shadow banks.  It's also not clear why, if he is so concerned about even the potential for moral hazard and taxpayer-funding being at risk (remember: FDIC recoups any expenses from fees on shadow banks, so taxpayers are always paid back), he took the bizarre step of expanding the amount of coverage FDIC gives to depositors (or the "creditors and counterparties" he rails about).  Did he feel creditors in the form of depositors weren't protected enough?

I've been reading about this 2002 bill, and if Bachus showed any concern about FDIC as an institution and a preference for putting commercial banks through bankruptcy instead of an orderly winddown I can't find it.  I'm trying to get a comment from the House Financial Services Committee on this but it certainly seems like a complete about face.  So one has to ask - if FDIC is a useful and appropriate way of allowing firms that hang a "bank" sign on the window to fail, why isn't it appropriate when a firm functions exactly like a bank?

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A Tale of Two Smiths: What Capitalism's Founder Would Think of Goldman's Greed

Apr 20, 2012John Paul Rollert

money-and-greed-150Adam Smith made a distinction between self-interest and selfishness -- and he knew that too much of the latter would lead a nation to ruin.

money-and-greed-150Adam Smith made a distinction between self-interest and selfishness -- and he knew that too much of the latter would lead a nation to ruin.

It has been over a month since Greg Smith’s letter of resignation sent Goldman Sachs into full PR panic mode. Since then, the firm has completed its great “muppet” sweep, Mr. Smith has secured a blockbuster book deal, and Lloyd Blankfein has found himself fighting off stories of a growing power struggle at the top of Goldman high command.

All of this makes for good copy, but it risks obscuring the enduring moral dilemma at the heart of the original letter. Namely, when it comes to doing business, can we make a meaningful distinction between self-interest and selfishness? Or, apropos of Mr. Smith, should a place like Goldman ever hold itself to a higher standard than “How much money did we make off the client?”

Another Smith certainly thought so: Adam Smith, the founding father of modern economics. He first made his name as a moral philosopher with The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a careful diagnosis of the concern we have for others, the attention we show ourselves, and how the tension between the two underwrites a common code of ethics.

One of the principal villains of Smith’s work was Bernard Mandeville, an occasional philosopher who impishly elided fine-grained distinctions. His scandalous work,The Fable of the Bees, was an allegorical poem involving a thriving beehive that bore more than passing resemblance to 18th-century England. Accounting for the affluence and ease the bees enjoyed, Mandeville made two contentions sufficient to give any high-minded economist heartburn. 

First, he claimed there was no essential difference, morally speaking, between the con man and the merchant. Both were driven by selfish instincts to get the better of their fellow man (or bee), and to that end, both trucked in deceit. Yes, the con man broke the law, but the merchant hid behind it.

Mandeville’s second claim was even more scabrous: So be it. Vice, not virtue, kept the wheels of commerce turning, with the benefits shared by all:

Thus Vice nurs’d Ingenuity,

Which join’d with Time and Industry,

Had carry’d Life’s Conveniences,

It’s real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease,

To such a Height, the very Poor

Liv’d better than the Rich before,

And nothing could be added more.

If these lines sound a little bit like "greed is good," then you get Mandeville’s point. Human beings are selfish, and thank goodness for it. Otherwise, we might end up like the bees, who are nearly wiped out after a spell of virtue saps their ambition, spoils their economy, and exposes them to outside attack.

When he stepped forward to challenge these views, Smith knew that he had to provide a compelling distinction between pursuits that are self-interested and those that are merely selfish. He granted Mandeville that there was “a certain remote affinity” between them insofar as both are motivated by a concern for personal well-being, but he appealed to common sense in saying that that we don’t view all human desires equally. My interest in having a clean shirt is not only legitimate, it's laudable, whereas my longing for a panda skin sportcoat is not only illegitimate, it’s an outrage.

Fair enough. But how exactly do we make these distinctions? Smith says we come by them naturally, by engaging others and discovering where our desires echo, overlap, and, finally, are at odds with one another. This process, iterative and ongoing, defines our moral sentiments, the felt necessities of right and wrong that shape and restrain our actions. It also defines for us what Smith called “a fair and deliberate exchange,” the very type of interaction at the heart of a commercial enterprise. 

When he turned his attention to economics, Smith did not think of himself as devising a system that was antagonistic or even alien to the one he had already developed. A free market provided individuals a space to engage each other in the pursuit of their own private interests, but that realm was not free from moral sentiments, nor should it be. Engaging in business was no less a part of human interaction than raising children or making friends, and the idea that a commercial sphere dominated by the grossest behavior would not contaminate the rest of society was not only silly, it was dangerously naive.  

This was Smith’s greatest difference with Mandeville: He did not believe that a nation in which people pursued their interests irrespective of one another would be affluent. It wouldn’t even be stable. Riven by “hostile factions,” society would seethe with conflict, for people with different interests would view each other with “contempt and derision.” In such an environment, Smith observed, “[t]ruth and fair dealing are almost totally disregarded,” for the interests of others have no moral claim on us.

Is Goldman Sachs such an environment? Greg Smith says so, but only the people who work there know whether the culture is as “toxic and destructive” as his letter claims. Yet to the degree that clients are viewed with contempt and derision, especially by leadership, Adam Smith would say that we should hardly be surprised, as the other Mr. Smith seems to be, by “how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.” This is to be expected. The line between selfishness and self-interest, in business as in all human pursuits, appears only when we feel that the interests of others occasionally require us to restrain our own. When we stop caring, that line disappears, and with it some very worthy things — personal integrity, self-respect, professional pride — that money can’t buy.

John Paul Rollert is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

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Does Expansionary Monetary Policy Primarily Benefit Finance and Rentiers?

Apr 17, 2012Mike Konczal

Joe Weisenthal calls it the Biggest Myth in Monetary Policy Today, and recently there's been a wave of posts about it.  Would another round of expansionary monetary policy at this point - in either a QE3, a conditional higher inflation target or NGDP targeting - primarily benefit the financial sector, rentiers and the wealthy?

Joe Weisenthal calls it the Biggest Myth in Monetary Policy Today, and recently there's been a wave of posts about it.  Would another round of expansionary monetary policy at this point - in either a QE3, a conditional higher inflation target or NGDP targeting - primarily benefit the financial sector, rentiers and the wealthy?

Here are Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson at Economix, making the case in Who Captured the Fed?:

Thus was born the idea of independent central bankers, steering the monetary ship purely on the basis of disinterested, objective and scientific analysis. When inflation is too high, they are supposed to raise interest rates. When unemployment is too high, they should make it cheaper and easier to borrow, all the while working to make sure that inflation expectations remain under control.

Increasingly, however, it seems that technocratic policy-making is just a myth. We have come full circle, and the Wall Street banks are calling the shots again...

Monetary policy has an impact on inflation, output and employment. But it also has a major impact on stock market prices. Any central banker raising interest rates is reducing stock market values and thus eroding the bonuses of top bankers and other chief executives....

Those people will lobby, asserting that higher interest rates will undermine the economy and cause us to plummet into recession, or worse....

We have lost track of the number of research notes from major banks pleading for easier credit, lower capital requirements, delay in implementing financial reforms or all of the above...

As the American economy begins to improve, influential people in the financial sector will continue to talk about the need for a prolonged period of low interest rates. The Fed will listen.

I'm a huge fan of both Daron Acemoglu and Simon Johnson (I'm about to start each of their books, Why Nations Fail and White House Burning), so I want to take this argument carefully.  How to approach it?

First off, it isn't just the financial sector calling for low rates (if they are, in fact, calling for it, as we'll see in a second).  A generic Taylor Rule, as Paul Krugman recently pointed out, calls for low rates until 2015.  Mess with the rule and the data a bit to adjust that date at the margins, but generic macroeconomic stabilization rules still see low rates for quite some time as necessary.

I always find the following to be a useful thought exercise: imagine we wake up and find that interest rates aren't set at zero but instead at one percent.  Whoops!  Should we turn around and have the Federal Reserve lower interest rates?  Those who think that Taylor Rule is correct and that the zero lower bound is blocking monetary policy from being effective would say yes; so would people who think the Federal Reserve isn't out of ammunition at the zero lower bound, people like Christina Romer and Charles Evans.

The post argues the Federal Reserve should, when unemployment is high, "make it cheaper and easier to borrow, all the while working to make sure that inflation expectations remain under control."  The post seems to concede that monetary policy works as normal, and unemployment is high and inflation expectations are, if anything, lower than what we want.

But I feel the entire vibe of the article is wrong. The financial sector is calling for higher interest rates.  This is why Carmen Reinhart told Institutional Investor that “Financial repression is manifesting itself right now” alongside the notion that financial repression is like “the rape and plunder of pension funds.”  Members of the financial community complain to reporters about "low interest rates that have been 'artificially manipulated' by the Federal Reserve."

Or take Brad Delong's six minute debate about QE with Jim Grant from last year.  As Delong summarized it (my bold):

I found it depressing because the major unfairness Grant focused on is that, because of the Federal Reserve, investors in money market funds can get only one basis point of interest. The 9% unemployed: they are not the victims. Those who cannot sell their houses because of the foreclosure overhang: they are not the victims. Those whose businesses crash because of slack aggregate demand call they are not the victims. The real victims are the rentiers who have a right to a nice solid well above inflation safe return, and from whom the Federal Reserve is stealing that right.

And I found what I could gauge of Jim Grant's worldview depressing as well. He seemed to be selling rentier-populist ressentiment. Grant's world is full of "takers"--and the Federal Reserve is helping them. And the biggest takers in Jim Grant's mind are the hedge fund operators of Greenwich, Connecticut. Why are they the biggest takers? Because they can borrow cheap, at low interest rates, and put the money they borrow to work making fortunes. If only the Federal Reserve would shrink the money stock and raise interest rates! Then the hedge funds would have to pay healthy interest rates for their cash! Then the profits would flow to the truly worthy: the rentier coupon-clippers now suffering with their one basis point yields.

Never mind what a policy of monetary restraint to "normalize" interest rates would do to the unemployed...

You can read that in the recent statement by Mohamed A. El-Erian of Pimco, who, as Karl Smith noted, wants the Federal Reserve to focus on microeconomic goals instead of the macroeconomic problem of full employment.  This isn't new.  As Keynes noted, "the most stable, and the least easily shifted, element in our contemporary economy has been hitherto, and may prove to be in future, the minimum rate of interest acceptable to the generality of wealth-owners."

The implicit argument is that the interest rate compatible with full employment is too low for financial investors to accept.  Do we then just accept mass unemployment and the subsequent hysteresis-induced slowing of growth and human potential so Jim Grant and Pimco can make a profit they feel is worthy of their financial talents?  Of course not.

Now if you check out Jim Grant's argument to Brad Delong, there's an argument that we should split finance in two sectors - an established one that is hurt by low interest rates and one that is more focused on intermediation and/or trading for themselves, which could benefits from low rates and bubbles is stock prices and assets.

The stock market is following unemployment claims pretty closely, so it isn't clear to me that the stock market is broken from its function as a prediction of future economic activity (i.e. in a bubble).  I like two MIT economists arguing that we should disconnect stock prices from the real economy, but I think that requires an additional layer of explanation.  For instance, if monetary policy was constant and we passed another round of deficit-funded fiscal stimulus to rebuild infrastructure and employ people, I would expect the stock market to increase because the economy would be stronger.

If that's the case, that there's two financial sectors and one of them benefits from monetary expansion we have to ask - so what?  If monetary policy is working, and bringing us closer to full employment, and some hedge funds and Wall Street traders make some money off of it, why should that impact our commitment to using all levers for full employment?  Monetary policy is not a morality play, and it's not about rewarding the good people and punishing the bad ones.  It’s about stabilizing growth, prices and maximum employment without overheating the system or letting it choke to death from a lack of oxygen.

As Josh Mason's great guest post here mentioned, if we are worried about where the financial sector channels money, that's an argument for regulation instead of mass unemployment and scarce liquidity.  We should commit to better regulations as well as progressive taxes and/or financial taxes.  If those aren't in place (and I don't believe they sufficently are), those shouldn't be attempted with monetary policy, and they absolutely must not distract us from taking our eye off the goal - full employment in the wake of the Great Recession.

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For Capitalism to Survive, Crime Must Not Pay

Apr 12, 2012Bruce Judson

money-justice-scalesUnequal enforcement of the law will distort and destroy any capitalist society, and we may be witnessing just such a downward spiral in the financial sector.

money-justice-scalesUnequal enforcement of the law will distort and destroy any capitalist society, and we may be witnessing just such a downward spiral in the financial sector.

Capitalism is not an abstract idea. It is an economic system with a distinct set of underlying principles that must exist in order for the system to work. One of these principles is equal justice. In its absence, parties will stop entering into transactions that create overall wealth for our society. Justice must be blind so that both parties — whether weak or powerful — can assume that an agreement between them will be equally enforced by the courts.

There is a second, perhaps even more fundamental, reason that equal justice is essential for capitalism to work. When unequal justice prevails, the party that does not need to follow the law has a distinct competitive advantage. A corporation that knowingly breaks the law will find ways to profit through illegal means that are not available to competitors. As a consequence, the competitive playing field is biased toward the company that does not need to follow the rules.

The net result of unequal justice is likely to be the destruction of the overall wealth of our society. I don’t mean the wealth of individuals; I mean the total wealth of goods and services that are the benefits of healthy competition. To the extent that unequal justice prevails, entities that are exempt from the laws will, in all likelihood, be more profitable than law abiding competitors. Then they use their profits to further weaken competitors by using their illegal profits to further build their businesses at the expense of competitors. All of this business building activity is based on a foundation of sand, and ultimately the entire industry — or even the larger economy — becomes distorted. The “rogue” company gains power, changes markets, and destroys direct and indirect competitors because it is playing by different rules.

The above scenario is not simply a hypothetical example. It is exactly what happened at Worldcom. As the company succeeded because of its then-unknown illegal activities, it grew, managed to take over MCI (one of the true innovators in the industry), and weakened competitors who could not match its profitability. Ultimately the whole edifice collapsed, causing massive wealth destruction in the telecommunications industry and the economy as a whole.

In the WorldCom example, appropriate legal enforcement and prosecution did not occur until the accounting fraud and other crimes were detected. Thus, while it is more an example of undetected accounting fraud than unequal justice, the results are illustrative. In a society with unequal justice, the appropriate laws are never enforced, so entities acting outside the law continue to grow more profitable and powerful (as compared to everyone operating according to the rules). Moreover, the profits from illegal activities can be used to subsidize competition across the spectrum of business activities of companies acting outside the law — which further enforces the competitive advantage, and possible hegemony, of entities operating on a different playing field.

Now, here’s why the above discussion is so important if we hope to return our economy to the dynamo of wealth creation for the entire society that is, in part, what made America a great nation. As economic inequality increases, two sets of laws implicitly develop: one set for powerful members of society and another set for the weaker. These two sets of laws are often defined by a single question: who is prosecuted for crimes and who is not. When powerful members of society can break the law without fear of prosecution, they will inevitably exploit this competitive advantage by engaging in profitable (but illegal) activity. At the same time, the weaker members of society can’t compete; they are shackled by the need to follow the laws of the land. Meanwhile, everyone loses as the profits of companies violating the law distort the competitive playing field and the activities of everyone in it and divert societal activity from the creation of real wealth.

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In effect, equal enforcement of the law is not simply important for democracy or to ensure that economic activity takes place, it is fundamental to ensuring that capitalism works. Without equal enforcement of the law, the economy operates with participants who are competitively advantaged and disadvantaged. The rogue firms are in effect receiving a giant government subsidy: the freedom to engage in profitable activities that are prohibited to lesser entities. This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle (like the growth of WorldCom from a regional phone carrier to a national giant that included MCI), so that inequality becomes ever greater. Ultimately, we all lose as our entire economy is distorted, valuable entities are crushed or never get off the ground because they can’t compete on a playing field that is not level, and most likely wealth is destroyed.

The central question for the nation right now is whether we are, in fact, in the middle of the dire and dangerous cycle described above. Washington insiders have reportedthat the Justice Department is explicitly choosing not to prosecute seemingly illegal bank activities. Indeed, in my previous column I noted that the audits released by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Housing and Urban Development detailed activities by senior banking officials associated with the robo-mortgage scandal that seem to constitute clear evidence of multiple federal felonies, and most likely violated state laws as well. Yet no one has been indicted.

In an entirely different sector of financial services, the venerable American Banker just completed a three-part series on past credit card debt collection practices. Many of these activities are now under investigation by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. But if the past is prologue, it’s unlikely that any criminal indictments will result, no matter what these investigations uncover.

Indeed, as has been repeatedly documented, when illegal activity is detected, the SEC settles with the banks in civil lawsuits for sums that, while appearing to be large, are a pittance compared to the profits of the institutions involved. While these same activities would in many cases constitute criminal violations, no prosecutions have occurred. The bankers who operate our largest financial institutions can rightfully assume that they are above the laws that constrain everyone else.

The evidence that crime does, in fact, pay is perfectly clear. Before the 1990s, the total profits of the financial services sector rarely accounted for more than 20 percentof the total corporate profits of the nation’s economy. By 2005, they averaged aboutone-third of all corporate profits. After sinking as a result of the crash, they rebounded dramatically. By early 2011, the sector once again accounted for about 30 percent of total corporate profits. As The Wall Street Journal noted, “That’s an amazing share given that the sector accounts for less than 10 percent of the value added in the economy.”

Finance serves a valuable function. Its principal role is to ensure that capital is most efficiently allocated in a society. However, financial services are also an intermediate good. They grease the wheels, through capital allocation, so that real goods and services that people consume or experience can be created. Yet, as the Journal noted, the sector’s profits are far in excess of the value the sector adds to the overall economy. At the same time, recent academic research has suggested that the financial sector has become less efficient over time, with the gains from information technology cancelled out by increases in trading activity (whose social value is certainly open to question).

This will ultimately lead us in a downward spiral: A few large powerful entities and people operate above the law, inequality is extreme, citizens have lost faith in their political systems, real societal wealth is not created, and political instability becomes a potential reality. John Adams held that “We are a nation of laws, not men” for a valid reason. Now, we need those charged with enforcing our laws to do their job.

Bruce Judson is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and a former Senior Faculty Fellow at the Yale School of Management.

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Memo to Romney: America's Greatest Presidents All Used Government to Increase Prosperity

Apr 5, 2012David B. Woolner

As part of the How We Value Government series, a reminder that while America has benefited from the free market, we wouldn't be anywhere without the government playing a major role in the economy -- and our entire society.

As part of the How We Value Government series, a reminder that while America has benefited from the free market, we wouldn't be anywhere without the government playing a major role in the economy -- and our entire society.

In his Wisconsin primary victory speech, presidential aspirant Mitt Romney made some interesting observations about Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Abraham Lincoln. He seemed to indicate that he admires them, as they were what he termed "historically great" presidents. He then went on to chide the current president for having the audacity to think of himself in the same league as these three great former leaders. He described the coming presidential election at great length as a historic choice between what he termed a "government-centered society" and a "society led by free people and free enterprises."

In making these observations, Mr. Romney made no attempt to rectify the fundamental contradiction in his remarks. He either failed to see, or decided to conveniently ignore, the fact that the three "historically great" presidents (one Republican and two Democratic) he made reference to at the opening of his remarks all shared one thing in common: a fundamental belief in the positive use of government to help expand the economy and provide a greater degree of economic opportunity and social justice for all Americans -- not just those at the top of the income ladder.

It was President Lincoln, for example, who in 1862 signed such pieces of legislation as the Homestead Act, which issued 160 acres of Federal land west of the Mississippi River at little or no cost to any adult citizen who had not borne arms against the United States, provided they agreed to improve the land. He also signed the Morill Act, which donated 30,000 acres of federal land to a number of states and territories that could then be sold by the state to provide the revenue needed to fund public colleges and universities. The result was the establishment of over 60 "land-grant" colleges and universities across the country, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison (the very state in which Mr. Romney made his remarks about the evils of a "government-centered" society). The Homestead Act greatly accelerated the settlement of U.S. territory in the West and was a boon to the overall economy. The establishment of "land-grant" colleges and universities brought the dream of higher education to tens of thousands of low-income farmers and workers who had previously been denied that opportunity, which had untold benefits in science, technology, and the liberal arts.

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FDR brought us the most comprehensive banking and financial reform in U.S. history. He established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a number of other important laws that restored confidence in the country's financial and banking sector not only among the American people, but also among the business community. In using government in this way, the Roosevelt administration laid the basis for the overall growth of the financial sector for decades to come. FDR also greatly expanded the country's economic infrastructure through a massive effort to update the country's antiquated roads, bridges, airports, and other facilities, all of which helped propel the expansion of the economy in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and beyond. He also signed the National Labor Relations Act into law, which encouraged higher wages through the unionization of the workforce and, near the end of his life, pushed through the GI Bill, which allowed thousands of returning World War II veterans the chance to secure further job training or access to higher education. Both of those efforts helped make the post-1945 U.S. economy the envy of the world.

The Johnson administration gave us the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act of 1964 and '65, which began the long, slow process of ending racial discrimination in America. It gave us Medicare and Medicaid to provide the elderly and low-income individuals with access to health care. Head Start and the Higher Education Act of 1965 helped low-income families secure a better education for their children. The Truth-in-Lending Act helped protect consumers from abusive lending practices. These and a host of other initiatives were designed to build a "Great Society" that would provide everyday Americans with a greater measure of social security and economic opportunity.

In short, all of these "historically great" presidents used government as a tool to improve the lives of working Americans through a host of important initiatives that not only helped render the United States a more just and equitable society, but also helped expand our economy by increasing the level of economic opportunity.

Ignoring all of this, Mr. Romney insists that it is only "free enterprise" and the "free enterprise system" that can lift people out of poverty, educate our kids, and build a strong middle class. He claims that this is the one true path to economic prosperity and as such says he is running for president because he wants to "restore to America the economic values of freedom and limited government that has made us the powerhouse of the world."

But in making this claim, Mr. Romney misreads our history. There is no question that the United States and the American people have benefited tremendously over the years from the fruits of the free enterprise system. But the notion that our government has not played a major part in this success story ignores the facts. Ask yourself where we might be today without the innovations of such institutions as MIT or Cornell University, if our banking system was not backed by the FDIC, or what sort of social security system we might have if we had turned over the Social Security Trust Fund to the private equity markets prior to the recent financial crisis. Also ask yourself if you really think the financial sector would be better off without the SEC or if it really is fair that Warren Buffett's secretary pays a higher rate of tax than her employer.

History teaches us that the true story of America is one of enlightened leadership in the creative use of government to unleash the creative energies of the American people. History also reminds us that the free market, left unchecked, can bring the country to financial ruin. Mr. Romney refuses to acknowledge this. Instead, he claims that President Obama is wrong to focus so much of his attention on finding government-led solutions to our current problems. Meanwhile, he mocks him for even attempting to aspire to the greatness of a Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Johnson -- the three of our presidents who, perhaps more than any others, understood that there are times when, as FDR put it, the American citizen, in seeking to rectify economic inequality and injustice, "could only appeal to the organized power of government."

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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FDR Countered Wall Street's Greed With Mass Prosperity

Mar 22, 2012David B. Woolner

Today's financial giants pursue greater wealth at any cost, but in order to build a sustainable economy, we have to make life richer for all Americans.

Today's financial giants pursue greater wealth at any cost, but in order to build a sustainable economy, we have to make life richer for all Americans.

Today, national progress and national prosperity are being held back chiefly because of selfishness on the part of a few... You know their reasoning. They say that in the competition of life for the good things of life "some people are successful because they have better brains or are more efficient; the wise, the swift and the strong are able to outstrip their fellowmen." And they say that that is nature itself and you cannot do anything about it and it is just too bad if some, the minority of people, get left behind.

It is that attitude which leads such people to give little thought, to give anything but lip service, to the one-third of our population which I have described as being ill-fed, ill-clad, and ill-housed. The majority of them say, "I am not my brother's keeper" -- and they "pass by on the other side." Most of them are honest people. Most of them consider themselves excellent citizens.

But, my friends, this Nation will never permanently get on the road to recovery if we leave the methods and processes of recovery to those people who owned -- I say "owned" -- the Government of the United States from 1921 to 1933. -Franklin D Roosevelt

The recent publication of an editorial in the New York Times by a top executive at Goldman Sachs has sparked a fierce debate about the culture of greed that has permeated Wall Street in recent years. Critics argue that the author of the article, Greg Smith, is right to point out that Wall Street has lost its moral compass and that firms like Goldman are no longer interested in their clients and couldn't care less about the long-term implications of their investment strategies. Today's Wall Street, they insist, is driven by one motive and one motive only: to make as much money as possible for themselves and for the firms they work for in the shortest possible time, whatever the consequences for the customers the company is supposed to be serving. On the other hand, the defenders of Wall Street insist that the desire to make money is nothing new -- that greed, in fact, has always been a part of the culture of the investment banking community, and that we should not be so surprised or alarmed that the people who work in the financial sector do so out of a desire to become rich.

Given the consequences of the recent financial crisis, the fact that Mr. Smith's article has provoked a debate about the culture of Wall Street seems understandable. With unemployment still over 8 percent nationwide, a good share of the population remains concerned about the possibility that the "toxic atmosphere" Mr. Smith describes on Wall Street might lead to another financial meltdown. Yes, we do have Dodd-Frank, but will this piece of legislation prove adequate to prevent a repeat scenario?

These are all legitimate questions, but given the poor state of our economy and the millions who remain unemployed or underemployed a full four years after the onset of the collapse of the financial sector, the real question that needs to be addressed concerns not just the behavior of Wall Street, but the impact that the singular pursuit of wealth in whatever field has on the nation as a whole.

Seventy-four years ago, on March 23, 1938, Franklin Roosevelt addressed this very question in a speech he made to the people of Gainesville, Georgia. Two years before, Gainesville had been devastated by a violent tornado that left over 200 people dead and destroyed much of its downtown area. But with the help of over $1 million in federal aid from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) and a number of construction projects carried out by the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), along with the financial support, hard work, and "unselfish cooperation" of the citizens of Gainesville, the city was rebuilt. Moreover, the new Gainesville was better than the old, with less congestion, better housing, and more parks and green space for the people to enjoy.

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Taking note of this, FDR observed that the efforts of the people of Gainesville to rebuild their city touched "the interest and life of the whole Nation" because they typified the concept of citizenship "which is latent in the American character." It was true that in the wake of the destruction the city had "great needs," but these needs "were met," he said, "in accordance with the democratic principle that those needs should be filled in proportion to the ability of each individual to help."

Not one to miss a teachable moment, FDR then went on to address the larger question of economic inequality that still plagued the country. Much of this inequality, he insisted, was the result of the selfishness and greed of those at the top end of the income ladder who refused to accept or acknowledge that a society built on such vast disparity of wealth was not only undemocratic, but also economically unsustainable. These individuals, he went on:

...are the kind of people who...were saying, "Oh, yes, we want nobody to starve" but at the same time were insisting that the balancing of the budget was more important than making appropriations for relief. And when I told them that I, too wanted to balance the budget but that I put human lives ahead of dollars and handed them the book of the government estimates and asked them just where they would out the appropriations, inevitably they folded up and came back and told me, "Mr. President, that is not my business, that is yours."

FDR then went on to speak about how such attitudes affected the nation as a whole, of the consequences of economic inequality and the critical need to provide work and better wages for the "bottom third" of the U.S. population. He insisted it was vital to improve the "buying power" of the millions of unemployed and other workers "who are so under-employed or so underpaid that the burden of their poverty affects the little business man and the big business man and the millionaire himself." Moreover, he also reminded his listeners that better buying power meant not just greater purchases in hard-hit industries but also "many other...things -- better schools, better health and hospitals, better highways."

In short, FDR insisted that the best way to work our way out of the Great Depression and sustain capitalism was to make sure it worked for all our citizens, rich and poor alike. Happily, the actions of the people of Georgia in the wake of tragedy had convinced him that more and more Americans from workers and farmers to bankers and businessmen were coming to see "that the continuation of the American system calls for the elimination of special privilege, the dissemination of the whole truth, and participation in prosperity by the people at the bottom of the ladder, as well as those in the middle and those at the top."

It is certainly not a bad thing that Mr. Smith's article about the culture of Wall Street has stirred up a debate about the values and motivations of the individuals working in the financial sector. But in a society where the same newspaper has recently reported that the number of poor and near poor in America -- those living "either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it" -- has now reached approximately 100 million Americans, one wonders why more people are not focused on the "one third of a nation" that, as in FDR's day, sadly finds itself "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill nourished." Would an editorial bemoaning the increasing level of poverty in America have sparked the same amount of interest?

Viewed from this perspective, the culture on Wall Street, with its huge bonuses and drive for ever-increasing wealth no matter what the consequences for the client, becomes all the more disturbing. Not so much for what it says about the financial sector, but rather for what it says about the state of the country as a whole. The pursuit of wealth for wealth's sake is a poor foundation upon which to build a modern economy well-suited for the 21st century. Surely FDR is right when he reminds us that it is better for us to become "our brother's keeper" than to "pass on to the other side."

David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.

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A Seven Day Plan to Finally Hold Wall Street Accountable

Mar 19, 2012Bruce Judson

money-justice-scalesNew evidence points to illegal behavior. Prosecution is the only way to keep that behavior from continuing.

It's now a near certainty that Wall Street executives committed felonies.

money-justice-scalesNew evidence points to illegal behavior. Prosecution is the only way to keep that behavior from continuing.

It's now a near certainty that Wall Street executives committed felonies.

The recently released audits of robo-mortgage activities by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) details shocking behavior at the five banks constituting the Federal Housing Administration's largest mortgage servicers. At Wells Fargo, management quashed a midlevel manager's study of the foreclosure process as negative results began to emerge, and it gave an individual whose last job had been in a pizza restaurant the title of "vice-president of loan documentation" to facilitate robo-mortgage signing. Bank of America evaluated employees on the volume of foreclosure affidavits produced. JP Morgan Chase gave individuals titles such as "vice-president of Chase Home" where "the titles were given by Chase for the sole purpose of allowing individuals to sign documents and came with no other duties or authority." Citigroup and Ally similarly engaged in seemingly illegal practices.

Under federal law, the knowing filing of a false affidavit with the court is a felony offense of perjury, punishable by a prison term of up to five years. An individual violates laws against perjury whether he or she personally appears in court and swears to a false statement or provides the court with a false affidavit. Individual states have their own perjury laws, which were undoubtedly violated as well. The HUD report also suggests that individual banks may be guilty of obstruction of justice and the criminal violation of the False Claims Act for filing insurance claims without following HUD requirements.

Since the start of the financial crisis, federal and state officials have been struggling to change Wall Street behavior. To date, every effort has failed miserably, and the weak enforcement provisions of the robo-mortgage settlement are unlikely to meaningfully change this dynamic. Government officials have also relied, with a very few exceptions, entirely on civil enforcement when criminal laws appear to have been egregiously violated.

The greatest moral hazard now confronting the nation is what appears to be increasingly brazen criminal activity by financial industry executives. With each decision not to prosecute, Wall Street executives justifiably conclude that they are immune to the rules. As a result, it appears that Wall Street criminal activity is increasing in frequency and severity, as opposed to the reverse. The activities surrounding the collapse of MF Global are one example.

So what can be done about it? We can change the behavior in the financial service industry for a full generation in just seven days. This plan may seem to be tongue and cheek, but it hearkens back to a similar action in the era of the Great Depression. In the final months of Herbert Hoover's presidency, the Senate Banking Committee began an investigation into the causes of the Great Crash of 1929, and a young prosecutor named Ferdinand Pecora was appointed as Chief Counsel. Subsequently, the Roosevelt administration conveyed to Pecora that "the prosecution of an outstanding violator of the banking law would be the most salutary action that could be taken at this time. The feeling is that if the people become convinced that the big violators are to be punished, it will be helpful in restoring confidence." Ultimately, this investigation, which came to be known as the Pecora Commission, led to the indictment of one of America's most prominent financiers; demonstrated widespread self-dealing in the financial sector; and, as noted by historian Alan Brinkley, generated "broad popular support" for Roosevelt's reform agenda, including the creation of the SEC and the Glass-Steagall Act.

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My seven day plan is based on a simple premise: When criminal laws are egregiously violated, the guilty parties should face appropriate punishment. Here's the plan:

Day One: Read the HUD Inspector General's reports and the public records of past mortgage foreclosure cases from across the nation.

Day Two: Meet with the team at the Office of the Inspector General at HUD that prepared the audits. Obtain the names of all the bank officials, lawyers, and notaries whose behavior, as cited in the audit reports or otherwise known to the investigators, represent clear and unquestionable criminal violations. Add to this list other individuals who have similarly demonstrated or testified to behavior unquestionably constituting criminal acts, as indicated by the public records of the mortgage foreclosure cases reviewed in day one.

Day Three: Indict all of the individuals on the list compiled on day two.

Day Four: Indict banks and financial institutions on criminal charges where criminal behavior by employees (as demonstrated by day three indictments) appears to be endemic. The Justice Department guidelines for prosecuting firms include: (1) the pervasiveness of such activity, (2) the compliance procedures in place, (3) attempts by the corporation to end bad behavior, and (4) cooperation with federal investigators. In 2008, the Justice Department adopted a policy of accepting "deferred prosecutions," involving agreements to change corporate behavior without damaging innocent third parties through prosecution.

Corporations receive the benefits of "legal persons," as demonstrated by Citizens United. But they must also bear the responsibilities of these privileges. A reading of the HUD reports, and other public records, suggests several banks should clearly be prosecuted.

Day 5: Discuss plea bargains with indicted lower-level officials in return for cooperating in investigations of higher-level officials.

Day 6: Consider plea bargains with indicted banks, which require the removal of all remaining officers and directors who were serving when egregious criminal activity occurred, as well as senior officials who were in a position to exercise appropriate supervisory responsibility but chose to look the other way.

Day 7: Indict any senior Wall Street officials implicated by new cooperative testimony resulting from activities on day five. Adopt and announce a policy that future criminal violations will be prosecuted in a similar fashion.

What is particularly disturbing is that a look at the evidence already in the public domain (much less what investigators already know) shows that none of the actions discussed above are entirely absurd. The purpose of prosecution not simply punishment. It acts to deter further illegal activity and to restore public confidence in our system of governance. The nation desperately needs both of these benefits today.

Moreover, these ongoing, almost certainly criminal activities are ultimately dangerous threats to our economy, the success of capitalism, and our democracy. In his column on MF Global, Joe Nocera noted that "customers need to be able to trust" the laws protecting their money. "Otherwise, the markets can't function."

Today, as in the era of FDR, we must send a message to the financial community that illegal behavior will not be tolerated. By prosecuting blatant felonies now, we will deter future misbehavior and begin the process of recreating a fair society where equal justice prevails.

Bruce Judson is Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and a former Senior Faculty Fellow at the Yale School of Management.

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HUD Inspector General Hints at a Nuclear Bomb in the Mortgage Settlement

Mar 14, 2012Matt Stoller

Did Bank of America just get called out for failing to follow crucial procedures?

Most of what I have to say about the settlement is in this post over at Naked Capitalism. But there is a remarkable tidbit I left out, which the HUD OIG noted in a wry part of the audit on Bank of America.

Did Bank of America just get called out for failing to follow crucial procedures?

Most of what I have to say about the settlement is in this post over at Naked Capitalism. But there is a remarkable tidbit I left out, which the HUD OIG noted in a wry part of the audit on Bank of America.

Bank of America may have conveyed flawed or improper titles to HUD because it did not establish control environment which ensured that affiants performed a due diligence review of the facts submitted to courts and that employees properly notarized documents.

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This is the so-called "clouded title" problem, which is to say that bank servicers might have been foreclosing on properties they had no legal claim to. Yves Smith and Tom Adams jumped up and down on this in 2010 over a lawsuit called Kemp versus Countrywide. In this suit, a Bank of America employee revealed that Countrywide didn't properly follow securitization procedures to establish a clear chain of title. Therefore, the investors should technically get all their money back, because the loans were never actually turned into mortgage-backed securities. This is a multi-trillion dollar problem, a put-the-toothpaste-back-in-the-tube issue that no one wants to even whisper about.

And the HUD OIG somewhat alluded to the fact that it's out there. Awkward.

Matt Stoller is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former Senior Policy Advisor to Congressman Alan Grayson.

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Dorian Warren: Why Resetting the Agenda is No Easy Task

Mar 14, 2012Tim Price

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren appeared on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry along with Shelby Knox of Change.org on Saturday to discuss why Republicans are so good at setting the political agenda and why it may have backfired on them recently. In the video below, Dorian notes that on the right, "all it takes is one big fat guy with a microphone spouting off to set the agenda, but it takes thousands of people to come together for us to reset the agenda. That's the reality of grassroots politics."

Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren appeared on MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry along with Shelby Knox of Change.org on Saturday to discuss why Republicans are so good at setting the political agenda and why it may have backfired on them recently. In the video below, Dorian notes that on the right, "all it takes is one big fat guy with a microphone spouting off to set the agenda, but it takes thousands of people to come together for us to reset the agenda. That's the reality of grassroots politics."

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Dorian argues that over the last 40 years, "Republicans have been better at all three faces of power" -- not just setting the agenda, but coercing people through the use of tools like Super PACs and influencing ideas with their free market rhetoric. But he notes that while dominant ideologies and institutions might seem too big or entrenched to change, "we always have to challenge reigning ideas that are oppressive" and "challenge those in power who are setting the agenda which is not in our interest." He cites the Occupy movement as one example of ordinary Americans coming together to take on titans like Bank of America.

Of course, as Republicans have learned all too well through their attempt to exhume the long-buried contraception debate, "you never know when you're agenda-setting what the backlash might be."

For more, check out Dorian's take on how rules are shaping the GOP primaries, the forgotten plight of the 99ers, and the cultural impact of the Notorious B.I.G. (Hey, even the AARP misses him.)

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