The Business of America Is Kleptocracy

| Wed Apr. 21, 2010 1:30 PM EDT

It's hard to miss these days. The headlines tell the story—repetitively. Everyone, it seems, is on the take. The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged Goldman Sachs with securities fraud for creating and selling "a mortgage investment that was secretly intended to fail"—and then betting against its own customers. JPMorgan Chase which, in a pinch in 2008, happily took taxpayer dough, just reported $3.3 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2010, a jump of 55% over the previous quarter. The bank set aside $9.3 billion in what's called "compensation and benefits" for its employees in 2009.

Even when they lose, they win. According to James Kwak of the Baseline Scenario website, on a deal in which JPMorgan swallowed $880 million in losses, its bankers still managed to walk awaywith up to $10 million in compensation. As he wrote, "JPMorgan's bankers did just fine, despite having placed a ticking time bomb on their own bank's balance sheet." Meanwhile, Robert Rubin, who helped create the world that led to the 2008 financial meltdown as Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, then took a top position at Citibank and made more than $100 million before it tanked on his watch. As economist Dean Baker puts it, "In the fall of 2008, when Citigroup was saved from bankruptcy with a taxpayer bailout, Rubin quietly slipped out the back door (with his money), resigning from his position at Citigroup." Only recently Rubin made the headlines for offering the least apologetic (non-)apology imaginable for taking the American people to the cleaners.

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And when it comes to taking, according to Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times, "more than 125 former Congressional aides and lawmakers are now working for financial firms as part of a multibillion-dollar effort to shape, and often scale back, federal regulatory power." In other words, the regulators and their aides legislate the rules and then simply step through that infamous revolving door and pick up a handsome check on the other side. There are, in fact, at least 11,000 well-employed registered lobbyists in Washington today. A $3.4 billion "industry" in 2009, lobbying is definitely a field to get into, even in bad times, and according to theChristian Science Monitor, "when the cost of grass-roots efforts and of strategic advisers are all counted, total spending on influencing policy in Washington approaches $9.6 billion a year."

As for the money flowing into politics from corporate deep pockets, 2008 not only saw the first billion-dollar presidential campaign, but at $1.7 billion, more than doubled the 2004 campaign's costs, and no one expects 2012 to be anything but more expensive. All this is, of course, known to anyone who glances at the front page of a daily newspaper, but what exactly do we make of it all? What does it add up to? William Astore, historian and TomDispatch regular, has a suggestion, but before you start his piece, you might want to close your purse or button that back pocket with your wallet in it. Otherwise, they could be picked bare by the time you're done.

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