Legacy of Lies: The Great Economic Cover-Up

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 4:17 PM EDT

Remember back in February, when Bill Clinton urged Obama to be more “upbeat” about the economy? Clinton actually implied that the new president could be making the financial crisis worse by being honest about how bad it was, thereby rattling public confidence—and with it, the market. You’d have thought the primary campaign would be enough to convince Obama that nothing good could come from Clinton homme. But the president has clearly taken a page from Clinton’s playbook. He now largely avoids statements that might frighten the horses in favor of cheerful declarations that we are at “a turning point in our pursuit of global economic recovery,” while at the same time promoting the latest bank bailout plan, which he says will get us there.

There are plenty of reasons why its wrong to try to buoy up a sinking economy on a raft of positive rhetoric—among them, the fact that it obscures what actually happened in the past, and clouds our judgment about what should be done to “fix” it. In the current issue of Newsweek, Daniel Gross comments on the Orwellian linguistic feat by which the government seeks to rebrand the piles of worthless crap created by our financial system.

Remember those toxic assets? The poorly performing mortgages and collateralized debt obligations festering on the books of banks that made truly execrable lending decisions? In the latest federal bank-rescue plan, they’ve been transformed into “legacy loans” and “legacy securities”--safe for professional investors to purchase, provided, of course, they get lots of cheap government credit. It’s as if some thoughtful person had amassed, through decades of careful husbandry, a valuable collection that’s now being left as a blessing for posterity.

According to this morning’s New York Times, the administration is now taking things a step further by promoting a plan that would let us ordinary folks buy what are being called “bailout bonds”—shares in mutual fund-type bundles of lousy mortgage securities. These are supposed to eventually become profitable, thereby allowing us to share in the wealth. But of course, they could also go the other way. As the Times notes: “If, as some analysts suspect, the banks’ assets are worth even less than believed, the funds’ investors could suffer significant losses.” In other words, having been screwed once by Wall Street, we’re now being asked to bend over for a twofer—which some people just might do, if they believe the rhetoric that happy days are about to be here again.

Another point of view came from William K. Black, who was the chief federal regulator during the S&L crisis, in a long interview with Bill Moyers on Friday. Black calls Bernie Madoff a “piker” in comparison with the Wall Street giants that committed mass fraud, and are now nonetheless raking in government funds. When Moyers asks Black “why the bankers who created this mess are still calling the shots” instead of being fired like the auto executives, Black mentions the close relationships between Washington and Wall Street, which applies to Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as much as to Henry Paulson. Then he talks about what he doesn’t hesitate to call a “cover-up”:

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WILLIAM K. BLACK: But the other element of your question is, we don’t want to change the bankers, because if we do, if we put honest people in, who didn’t cause the problem, their first job would be to find the scope of the problem. And that would destroy the cover up.
BILL MOYERS: The cover up?
BLACK: Sure. The cover up.
MOYERS: That’s a serious charge.
BLACK: Of course.
MOYERS: Who’s covering up?
BLACK: Geithner is charging, is covering up. Just like Paulson did before him. Geithner is publicly saying that it’s going to take $2 trillion—a trillion is a thousand billion—$2 trillion taxpayer dollars to deal with this problem. But they’re allowing all the banks to report that they’re not only solvent, but fully capitalized. Both statements can’t be true. It can’t be that they need $2 trillion, because they have masses losses, and that they’re fine.

Black insists that “the entire strategy is to keep people from getting the facts…about how bad the condition of the banks is.” So instead of closing bad banks, as regulators did after the S&L crisis, the government is simultaneously pumping money into them and covering up their losses, while avoiding any hard-nosed investigation into their past conduct—all based on the idea that “we have to lie to the people to create confidence.”

MOYERS: Are you saying that Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, and others in the administration, with the banks, are engaged in a cover up to keep us from knowing what went wrong?
BLACK: Absolutely.
MOYERS: You are.
BLACK: Absolutely, because they are scared to death. All right? They’re scared to death of a collapse. They’re afraid that if they admit the truth, that many of the large banks are insolvent. They think Americans are a bunch of cowards, and that we’ll run screaming to the exits. And we won’t rely on deposit insurance. And, by the way, you can rely on deposit insurance. And it’s foolishness. All right? Now, it may be worse than that. You can impute more cynical motives. But I think they are sincerely just panicked about, “We just can’t let the big banks fail.” That’s wrong.…
MOYERS: So, you’re saying that people in power, political power, and financial power, act in concert when their own behinds are in the ringer, right?
BLACK: That’s right. And it’s particularly a crisis that brings this out, because then the class of the banker says, “You’ve got to keep the information away from the public or everything will collapse. If they understand how bad it is, they’ll run for the exits.”

Promoting this scenario, of course, serves the interests of these same bankers, since it insists that the only way to prevent complete catastrophe is to keep bailing out the big financial institutions, regardless of their credibility and regardless of the cost.

Black believes that the only antidote for this self-serving myth lies in Congress having the wherewithal to launch a real investigation and reveal the facts to the American people—and then base future policymaking on these facts, instead of on a legacy of lies.