The Wall Street Connection (1992 to 2016)
[This piece has been adapted and updated by Nomi Prins from chapters 18 and 19 of her book All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power, just out in paperback (Nation Books).]
The past, especially the political past, doesn’t just provide clues to the present. In the realm of the presidency and Wall Street, it provides an ongoing pathway for political-financial relationships and policies that remain a threat to the American economy going forward.
When Hillary Clinton video-announced her bid for the Oval Office, she claimed she wanted to be a “champion” for the American people. Since then, she has attempted to recast herself as a populist and distance herself from some of the policies of her husband. But Bill Clinton did not become president without sharing the friendships, associations, and ideologies of the elite banking sect, nor will Hillary Clinton. Such relationships run too deep and are too longstanding.
To grasp the dangers that the Big Six banks (JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley) presently pose to the financial stability of our nation and the world, you need to understand their history in Washington, starting with the Clinton years of the 1990s. Alliances established then (not exclusively with Democrats, since bankers are bipartisan by nature) enabled these firms to become as politically powerful as they are today and to exert that power over an unprecedented amount of capital. Rest assured of one thing: their past and present CEOs will prove as critical in backing a Hillary Clinton presidency as they were in enabling her husband’s years in office.
In return, today’s titans of finance and their hordes of lobbyists, more than half of whom held prior positions in the government, exact certain requirements from Washington. They need to know that a safety net or bailout will always be available in times of emergency and that the regulatory road will be open to whatever practices they deem most profitable.
Whatever her populist pitch may be in the 2016 campaign — and she will have one — note that, in all these years, Hillary Clinton has not publicly condemned Wall Street or any individual Wall Street leader. Though she may, in the heat of that campaign, raise the bad-apples or bad-situation explanation for Wall Street’s role in the financial crisis of 2007-2008, rest assured that she will not point fingers at her friends. She will not chastise the people that pay her hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop to speak or the ones that have long shared the social circles in which she and her husband move. She is an undeniable component of the Clinton political-financial legacy that came to national fruition more than 23 years ago, which is why looking back at the history of the first Clinton presidency is likely to tell you so much about the shape and character of the possible second one.
The 1992 Election and the Rise of Bill Clinton
Challenging President George H.W. Bush, who was seeking a second term, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton announced he would seek the 1992 Democratic nomination for the presidency on October 2, 1991. The upcoming presidential election would not, however, turn out to alter the path of mergers or White House support for deregulation that was already in play one iota.
First, though, Clinton needed money. A consummate fundraiser in his home state, he cleverly amassed backing and established early alliances with Wall Street. One of his key supporters would later change American banking forever. As Clinton put it, he received “invaluable early support” from Ken Brody, a Goldman Sachs executive seeking to delve into Democratic politics. Brody took Clinton “to a dinner with high-powered New York businesspeople, including Bob Rubin, whose tightly reasoned arguments for a new economic policy,” Clinton later wrote, “made a lasting impression on me.”
The battle for the White House kicked into high gear the following fall. William Schreyer, chairman and CEO of Merrill Lynch, showed his support for Bush by giving the maximum personal contribution to his campaign committee permitted by law: $1,000. But he wanted to do more. So when one of Bush’s fundraisers solicited him to contribute to the Republican National Committee’s nonfederal, or “soft money,” account, Schreyer made a $100,000 donation.
The bankers’ alliances remained divided among the candidates at first, as they considered which man would be best for their own power trajectories, but their donations were plentiful: mortgage and broker company contributions were $1.2 million; 46% to the GOP and 54% to the Democrats. Commercial banks poured in $14.8 million to the 1992 campaigns at a near 50-50 split.
Clinton, like every good Democrat, campaigned publicly against the bankers: “It’s time to end the greed that consumed Wall Street and ruined our S&Ls [Savings and Loans] in the last decade,” he said. But equally, he had no qualms about taking money from the financial sector. In the early months of his campaign, BusinessWeek estimated that he received $2 million of his initial $8.5 million in contributions from New York, under the care of Ken Brody.
“If I had a Ken Brody working for me in every state, I’d be like the Maytag man with nothing to do,” said Rahm Emanuel, who ran Clinton’s nationwide fundraising committee and later became Barack Obama’s chief of staff. Wealthy donors and prospective fundraisers were invited to a select series of intimate meetings with Clinton at the plush Manhattan office of the prestigious private equity firm Blackstone.
Robert Rubin Comes to Washington
Clinton knew that embracing the bankers would help him get things done in Washington, and what he wanted to get done dovetailed nicely with their desires anyway. To facilitate his policies and maintain ties to Wall Street, he selected a man who had been instrumental to his campaign, Robert Rubin, as his economic adviser.
In 1980, Rubin had landed on Goldman Sachs’ management committee alongside fellow Democrat Jon Corzine. A decade later, Rubin and Stephen Friedman were appointed cochairmen of Goldman Sachs. Rubin’s political aspirations met an appropriate opportunity when Clinton captured the White House.
On January 25, 1993, Clinton appointed him as assistant to the president for economic policy. Shortly thereafter, the president created a unique role for his comrade, head of the newly created National Economic Council. “I asked Bob Rubin to take on a new job,” Clinton later wrote, “coordinating economic policy in the White House as Chairman of the National Economic Council, which would operate in much the same way the National Security Council did, bringing all the relevant agencies together to formulate and implement policy… [I]f he could balance all of [Goldman Sachs’] egos and interests, he had a good chance to succeed with the job.” (Ten years later, President George W. Bush gave the same position to Rubin’s old partner, Friedman.)
Back at Goldman, Jon Corzine, co-head of fixed income, and Henry Paulson, co-head of investment banking, were ascending through the ranks. They became co-CEOs when Friedman retired at the end of 1994.
Those two men were the perfect bipartisan duo. Corzine was a staunch Democrat serving on the International Capital Markets Advisory Committee of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (from 1989 to 1999). He would co-chair a presidential commission for Clinton on capital budgeting between 1997 and 1999, while serving in a key role on the Borrowing Advisory Committee of the Treasury Department. Paulson was a well connected Republican and Harvard graduate who had served on the White House Domestic Council as staff assistant to the president in the Nixon administration.
Bankers Forge Ahead
By May 1995, Rubin was impatiently warning Congress that the Glass-Steagall Act could “conceivably impede safety and soundness by limiting revenue diversification.” Banking deregulation was then inching through Congress. As they had during the previous Bush administration, both the House and Senate Banking Committees had approved separate versions of legislation to repeal Glass-Steagall, the 1933 Act passed by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt that had separated deposit-taking and lending or “commercial” bank activities from speculative or “investment bank” activities, such as securities creation and trading. Conference negotiations had fallen apart, though, and the effort was stalled.
By 1996, however, other industries, representing core clients of the banking sector, were already being deregulated. On February 8, 1996, Clinton signed the Telecom Act, which killed many independent and smaller broadcasting companies by opening a national market for “cross-ownership.” The result was mass mergers in that sector advised by banks.
Deregulation of companies that could transport energy across state lines came next. Before such deregulation, state commissions had regulated companies that owned power plants and transmission lines, which worked together to distribute power. Afterward, these could be divided and effectively traded without uniform regulation or responsibility to regional customers. This would lead to blackouts in California and a slew of energy derivatives, as well as trades at firms such as Enron that used the energy business as a front for fraudulent deals.
The number of mergers and stock and debt issuances ballooned on the back of all the deregulation that eliminated barriers that had kept companies separated. As industries consolidated, they also ramped up their complex transactions and special purpose vehicles (off-balance-sheet, offshore constructions tailored by the banking community to hide the true nature of their debts and shield their profits from taxes). Bankers kicked into overdrive to generate fees and create related deals. Many of these blew up in the early 2000s in a spate of scandals and bankruptcies, causing an earlier millennium recession.
Meanwhile, though, bankers plowed ahead with their advisory services, speculative enterprises, and deregulation pursuits. President Clinton and his team would soon provide them an epic gift, all in the name of U.S. global power and competitiveness. Robert Rubin would steer the White House ship to that goal.
On February 12, 1999, Rubin found a fresh angle to argue on behalf of banking deregulation. He addressed the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services, claiming that, “the problem U.S. financial services firms face abroad is more one of access than lack of competitiveness.”
He was referring to the European banks’ increasing control of distribution channels into the European institutional and retail client base. Unlike U.S. commercial banks, European banks had no restrictions keeping them from buying and teaming up with U.S. or other securities firms and investment banks to create or distribute their products. He did not appear concerned about the destruction caused by sizeable financial bets throughout Europe. The international competitiveness argument allowed him to focus the committee on what needed to be done domestically in the banking sector to remain competitive.
Rubin stressed the necessity of HR 665, the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, or the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, that was officially introduced on February 10, 1999. He said it took “fundamental actions to modernize our financial system by repealing the Glass-Steagall Act prohibitions on banks affiliating with securities firms and repealing the Bank Holding Company Act prohibitions on insurance underwriting.”
The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act Marches Forward
On February 24, 1999, in more testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, Rubin pushed for fewer prohibitions on bank affiliates that wanted to perform the same functions as their larger bank holding company, once the different types of financial firms could legally merge. That minor distinction would enable subsidiaries to place all sorts of bets and house all sorts of junk under the false premise that they had the same capital beneath them as their parent. The idea that a subsidiary’s problems can’t taint or destroy the host, or bank holding company, or create “catastrophic” risk, is a myth perpetuated by bankers and political enablers that continues to this day.
Rubin had no qualms with mega-consolidations across multiple service lines. His real problems were those of his banker friends, which lay with the financial modernization bill’s “prohibition on the use of subsidiaries by larger banks.” The bankers wanted the right to establish off-book subsidiaries where they could hide risks, and profits, as needed.
Again, Rubin decided to use the notion of remaining competitive with foreign banks to make his point. This technicality was “unacceptable to the administration,” he said, not least because “foreign banks underwrite and deal in securities through subsidiaries in the United States, and U.S. banks [already] conduct securities and merchant banking activities abroad through so-called Edge subsidiaries.” Rubin got his way. These off-book, risky, and barely regulated subsidiaries would be at the forefront of the 2008 financial crisis.
On March 1, 1999, Senator Phil Gramm released a final draft of the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 and scheduled committee consideration for March 4th. A bevy of excited financial titans who were close to Clinton, including Travelers CEO Sandy Weill, Bank of America CEO, Hugh McColl, and American Express CEO Harvey Golub, called for “swift congressional action.”
The Quintessential Revolving-Door Man
The stock market continued its meteoric rise in anticipation of a banker-friendly conclusion to the legislation that would deregulate their industry. Rising consumer confidence reflected the nation’s fondness for the markets and lack of empathy with the rest of the world’s economic plight. On March 29, 1999, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 10,000 for the first time. Six weeks later, on May 6th, the Financial Services Modernization Act passed the Senate. It legalized, after the fact, the merger that created the nation’s biggest bank. Citigroup, the marriage of Citibank and Travelers, had been finalized the previous October.
It was not until that point that one of Glass-Steagall’s main assassins decided to leave Washington. Six days after the bill passed the Senate, on May 12, 1999, Robert Rubin abruptly announced his resignation. As Clinton wrote, “I believed he had been the best and most important treasury secretary since Alexander Hamilton… He had played a decisive role in our efforts to restore economic growth and spread its benefits to more Americans.”
Clinton named Larry Summers to succeed Rubin. Two weeks later, BusinessWeek reported signs of trouble in merger paradise — in the form of a growing rift between John Reed, the former Chairman of Citibank, and Sandy Weill at the new Citigroup. As Reed said, “Co-CEOs are hard.” Perhaps to patch their rift, or simply to take advantage of a political opportunity, the two men enlisted a third person to join their relationship — none other than Robert Rubin.
Rubin’s resignation from Treasury became effective on July 2nd. At that time, he announced, “This almost six and a half years has been all-consuming, and I think it is time for me to go home to New York and to do whatever I’m going to do next.” Rubin became chairman of Citigroup’s executive committee and a member of the newly created “office of the chairman.” His initial annual compensation package was worth around $40 million. It was more than worth the “hit” he took when he left Goldman for the Treasury post.
Three days after the conference committee endorsed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley bill, Rubin assumed his Citigroup position, joining the institution destined to dominate the financial industry. That very same day, Reed and Weill issued a joint statement praising Washington for “liberating our financial companies from an antiquated regulatory structure,” stating that “this legislation will unleash the creativity of our industry and ensure our global competitiveness.”
On November 4th, the Senate approved the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act by a vote of 90 to 8. (The House voted 362–57 in favor.) Critics famously referred to it as the Citigroup Authorization Act.
Mirth abounded in Clinton’s White House. “Today Congress voted to update the rules that have governed financial services since the Great Depression and replace them with a system for the twenty-first century,” Summers said. “This historic legislation will better enable American companies to compete in the new economy.”
But the happiness was misguided. Deregulating the banking industry might have helped the titans of Wall Street but not people on Main Street. The Clinton era epitomized the vast difference between appearance and reality, spin and actuality. As the decade drew to a close, Clinton basked in the glow of a lofty stock market, a budget surplus, and the passage of this key banking “modernization.” It would be revealed in the 2000s that many corporate profits of the 1990s were based on inflated evaluations, manipulation, and fraud. When Clinton left office, the gap between rich and poor was greater than it had been in 1992, and yet the Democrats heralded him as some sort of prosperity hero.
When he resigned in 1997, Robert Reich, Clinton’s labor secretary, said, “America is prospering, but the prosperity is not being widely shared, certainly not as widely shared as it once was… We have made progress in growing the economy. But growing together again must be our central goal in the future.” Instead, the growth of wealth inequality in the United States accelerated, as the men yielding the most financial power wielded it with increasingly less culpability or restriction. By 2015, that wealth or prosperity gap would stand near historic highs.
The power of the bankers increased dramatically in the wake of the repeal of Glass-Steagall. The Clinton administration had rendered twenty-first-century banking practices similar to those of the pre-1929 crash. But worse. “Modernizing” meant utilizing government-backed depositors’ funds as collateral for the creation and distribution of all types of complex securities and derivatives whose proliferation would be increasingly quick and dangerous.
Eviscerating Glass-Steagall allowed big banks to compete against Europe and also enabled them to go on a rampage: more acquisitions, greater speculation, and more risky products. The big banks used their bloated balance sheets to engage in more complex activity, while counting on customer deposits and loans as capital chips on the global betting table. Bankers used hefty trading profits and wealth to increase lobbying funds and campaign donations, creating an endless circle of influence and mutual reinforcement of boundary-less speculation, endorsed by the White House.
Deposits could be used to garner larger windfalls, just as cheap labor and commodities in developing countries were used to formulate more expensive goods for profit in the upper echelons of the global financial hierarchy. Energy and telecoms proved especially fertile ground for the investment banking fee business (and later for fraud, extensive lawsuits, and bankruptcies). Deregulation greased the wheels of complex financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations, junk bonds, toxic assets, and unregulated derivatives.
The Glass-Steagall repeal led to unfettered derivatives growth and unstable balance sheets at commercial banks that merged with investment banks and at investment banks that preferred to remain solo but engaged in dodgier practices to remain “competitive.” In conjunction with the tight political-financial alignment and associated collaboration that began with Bush and increased under Clinton, bankers channeled the 1920s, only with more power over an immense and growing pile of global financial assets and increasingly “open” markets. In the process, accountability would evaporate.
Every bank accelerated its hunt for acquisitions and deposits to amass global influence while creating, trading, and distributing increasingly convoluted securities and derivatives. These practices would foster the kind of shaky, interconnected, and opaque financial environment that provided the backdrop and conditions leading up to the financial meltdown of 2008.
The Realities of 2016
Hillary Clinton is, of course, not her husband. But her access to his past banker alliances, amplified by the ones that she has formed herself, makes her more of a friend than an adversary to the banking industry. In her brief 2008 candidacy, all four of the New York-based Big Six banks ranked among her top 10 corporate donors. They have also contributed to the Clinton Foundation. She needs them to win, just as both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did.
No matter what spin is used for campaigning purposes, the idea that a critical distance can be maintained between the White House and Wall Street is naïve given the multiple channels of money and favors that flow between the two. It is even more improbable, given the history of connections that Hillary Clinton has established through her associations with key bank leaders in the early 1990s, during her time as a senator from New York, and given their contributions to the Clinton foundation while she was secretary of state. At some level, the situation couldn’t be less complicated: her path aligns with that of the country’s most powerful bankers. If she becomes president, that will remain the case.
Nomi Prins is the author of six books, a speaker, and a distinguished senior fellow at the non-partisan public policy institute Demos. Her most recent book, All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power (Nation Books) has just been released in paperback and this piece is adapted and updated from it. She is a former Wall Street executive.
Copyright 2015 Nomi Prins
Karl: Welcome to the Renegade Economists with your host, Karl Fitzgerald. This week we’re stepping back in time, way back some 10,000 years BC into the world of archaeology, Egyptology and Assyriology. Yes, it’s time for another special with Professor Michael Hudson. That’s right, Michael Hudson back on the show, he’s got a new book called Labor in the Ancient World and I asked him to give us a bit of a précis on the background to his very interesting process. Hang on for another riveting conversation here on 3CR’s Renegade Economists.
Michael Hudson: It’s a symposium of a group put together at Harvard University of the leading Assyriologists and Egyptologists and Mycenaean Greek specialists as well as archaeologists on how early societies mobilised the labour force, especially for large public building projects such as temples, city walls and other infrastructure.
Karl: And this is published through whom?
Michael: It’ll be published by ISLET, the Institute for the Study of Long-term Economic Trends. We just finished the type setting actually today and we’re sending it to Amazon to be put on their list, it’ll probably be available in about two weeks.
Karl: “Labor in the Ancient World.”
Karl: And does that have some sort of Harvard connection?
Michael: We founded this project over 20 years ago at the Peabody Museum, which is their archaeology and anthropology department. We wanted to do a series of books on how modern economies and practices began. Our first colloquium was in 1994 on Privatization in the Ancient Near East and Classical Antiquity; our second volume was on Urbanization and Landownership in the Ancient Near East, about how cities were created and how landownership and real estate patterns developed into a market for real estate. The third volume was on Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East, about how debt cancellations restored the land to its citizen-cultivators to provide a means of self-support for the free citizenry.
These colloquia grew so popular that we added a fourth volume, Creating Economic Order: Record-Keeping, Standardization and the Development of Accounting in the Ancient Near East, on the origins of money and account keeping from Mesopotamia to Mycenaean Greece and Egypt. And then ten years ago we had our fifth colloquium on Labor in the Ancient World. There have been so many revolutions in archaeology and Assyriology and even Egyptology in the last ten years that we’re only publishing this volume now, to be completely up-to-date.
Karl: So the Ancient Near East, how many thousand years ago was it? Just put us in the picture.
Michael: We begin the volume in 10,000 BC in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey where you have very large city-like ceremonial sites, larger than Stonehenge, huge sites that took hundreds of years to build with huge stone megaliths, even in the pre-pottery Neolithic. They didn’t yet have metal to carve these stones. They didn’t even have pottery. But they had in Göbekli all sorts of huge carvings in a seasonal site where people would come together on ceremonial occasions, like midsummer. We researched from Turkey in 10,000 BC to Sumer in the third millennium BC, Babylonia in the second millennium BC, the building of the pyramids, and we have the actual bills and accounting statements for what’s paid to labour to build the pyramids.
We found they were not built by slaves. They were built by well-paid skilled labour. The problem in these early periods was how to get labour to work at hard tasks, if not willingly? For 10,000 years there was a labour shortage. If people didn’t want to work hard, they could just move somewhere else. The labour that built temples and big ceremonial sites had to be at least quasi-voluntary even in the Bronze Age c. 2000 BC. Otherwise, people wouldn’t have gone there.
Karl: Michael, how did you actually track this? What were you reading to get this information?
Michael: Everybody who comes to the colloquium is a specialist in their period. For instance, Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky is the archaeologist dealing with Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. My co-editor for this volume, Piotr Steinkeller, is Babylonian specialist in cuneiform. We have two Egyptian specialists in hieroglyphics, and two Mycenaean Greek specialists for Linear B. Each scholar throughout all of these five volumes was a specialist in each time period and each geographical area on which we’re concentrating.
Karl: Were you reading clay tablets, cuneiform?
Michael: They read the clay tablets if they’re from Mesopotamia. They read the notations and carvings in the Egyptian pyramids on the inside of the big rock blocks that made the pyramids. Teams would carve or write the home town they came from. We also have royal inscriptions.
We found that one reason why people were willing to do building work with hard manual labour was the beer parties. There were huge expenditures on beer. If you’re going to have a lot of people come voluntarily to do something like city building or constructing their own kind of national identity of a palace and walls you’ve got to have plenty of beer. You also need plenty of meat, many animals being sacrificed. Archaeologists have found their bones and reconstructed the diets with fair accuracy.
What they found is that the people doing the manual labour on the pyramids, the Mesopotamian temples and city walls and other sites were given a good high protein diet. There were plenty of festivals. The way of integrating these people was by public feasts. This was like creating a peer group to participate in a ceremonial creation of national identity.
Karl: Back in those times, how would they have realised when this festival was on, how was communication spread that this was the time to come together?
Michael: We discussed this in the second volume of our series, Urbanization & Land Use in the Ancient Near East. They did it by the solar and lunar calendar, by counting the moons leading up to solar solstices or equinoxes. The great ceremonial sites from Stonehenge to Turkey were based on the particular equinox or solstice. Chieftains usually would be the calendar keepers. Going all the way back to the Ice Age around 29,000 BC Alex Marshack, one of our members, published The Roots of Civilization reporting on the carved bones he found with notations for the phases of the moon. The job of the chieftain was to keep the lunar calendar, trace the waxing and waning of the moon to calculate how long the month would be, and to decide that, “Ah, in this month, six months after the equinox, here’s where we have to get together and have everybody come to the gathering and begin working on the big site”.
The pyramids and other ancient monuments were built by free labor, not by slaves
Karl: I’m still trying to grasp this Michael. Would all these labourers come together in a centralised place to build this giant statue or pyramid based on some sort of goodwill?
Michael: Well, to begin with, you would have a beer party to get everybody friendly. You would have big feasts, and also these were the major occasions for socialization. All over the world, communal feasts were the primordial way to integrate societies.
Obviously somebody was in charge of designing these monuments. We don’t know whom, but they would supervise the cutting and carving of the stones. These had to be brought over large distances, just like in Stonehenge. The groups would quarry them and cut them. Maybe the cutters and designers were the same people. And in Göbekli we’re dealing in a time before they’d invented steel or metal. Many of the stones had to be cut and designs carved just by chipping away with other stones. It obviously was a very laborious type of work.
Corvee labor was supplied on the basis of landholdings
Later, by about 2,000 BC, populations were growing more dense. There also was a shift from the temples, which originally organised most of these mega-projects, to the palaces that developed out of them around 2750 BC. Their scribes developed accounting practices to schematise and organise this labour coming together. To coordinate this in an equitable, almost schematic way, land tenure was allocated on the principle that whoever had such-and-such a plot size had to supply a given number of labourers to work on the public infrastructure. So what we found as a by-product of the labour volume is that the origins of land rights were defined by the tax payments – the corvée labor obligation.
To get the right to a given land of a given size, you had to promise on such-and-such dates to provide this much labour for the corvée project. It’s a French word, because a corvée tax in the form of labour instead of money payments lasted all the way down through the 18th Century in France. It was typical in mediaeval Europe before you had a money economy. Everybody who had their own subsistence land or their own land holdings of one form or another, or their grazing lands, would have to supply X number of labourers to the big building project.
Karl: That’s quite some discovery. So you’re saying that labour was provided as an in-kind payment for taxation based around calendars to build these giant monuments?
Michael: Yes. Each of our archaeologists, Assyriologists and Egyptologists has found this for every period of the Bronze Age and the Neolithic.
Karl: And so we’re still rather on a voluntary level, there was no quantifying –
Michael: There weren’t that many people in the world in 10,000 BC, 3000 BC or even 2000 BC. If a government got too oppressive, or when they would raise the contributions or taxes too high, people would just flee to another area. Or if they were too much indebted the debtors would flee, as they did from Babylonia around 1600 BC. We are talking about free labor, not slave labor.
Karl: So they built a social contract around these feasts, around this sense of belonging by being at this public works event. It sounds like a fascinating way to keep society on track and organise labour so that civilisation would develop on some level. Have you found any indication on that managerial class and how they developed through the chieftains?
Michael: First the priesthoods, then the accountants and scribes. The calendar keepers were usually the chiefs (there may have been “sky chiefs” and “war chiefs” separately, or perhaps their roles were combined as dynastic rulers developed). Most of the religions were cosmological. They wanted to create an integrated cosmology of nature and society (“On earth, as it is in heaven”). Administration was based on the astronomical rhythms of the calendar, lunar and solar cycles. For instance, you typically find a society divided into 12 tribes, as you had in Israel and also in Greece with its amphictyonies. In a division of 12 tribes, each could take turns administering the ceremonial centre for one month out of the year.
The physical design of cities also was based on the calendar. Big cities would have 12 gates. Most cities had maybe four gates, representing the four seasons or the four quarters of the Earth. The outline of the land and the Earth was based on a calendrical cosmology, much like a mandala.
Ceremonial sites such as Stonehenge also were calendars in miniature, designed so that the light would fall on the stones in a particular way on a solstice or equinox. We have this going back into the Ice Age around 30,000 BC. Alex Marshak’s article in our volume on urbanisation found that these sites already in the Ice Age were usually sited on waterways, so that everybody could get to them. They often were sited with mountains in the background and in between them the sun would shine in a particular way on the equinox or on the solstice in a particular alignment that occurred just at that calendrical time. They were recreating the cosmos on Earth.
Karl: You’re on 3CR’s Renegade Economists, this week with distinguished Research Professor Michael Hudson from Michael-Hudson.com and we’re discussing his new colloquium book “Labour in the Ancient World”. We’re tracking back some 10,000-odd years, hearing about how civilisation was developed. Michael, this is a fascinating discussion. I’m interested, of course, here on the Renegades, about this role of land tenure, and how that influenced citizens’ role in society. From what I’ve read out of your new book, it sounds like land holdings played a huge role in the status of a participant in one’s society.
Ancient citizenship, voting rights – and social obligations – were based on landholding
Michael: In America down to the time of the Revolution in the 18 th century, and in early Australia I assume also, in order to be a citizen and vote, you had to be a landowner. And all the way back in Rome and earlier times, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Sumer, citizens had to have their own land. In Rome each citizen’s voting rights were defined by the land area he owned. I say “he” because only the males were citizens. It was a patriarchal society, with voting rights proportional to the size of one’s landholdings.
Much as today, debt was a major factor concentrating landholdings. Finance always has been the great lever to appropriate the land rent and interfere with widespread land ownership. If you owe money on a mortgage and you can’t pay, you can be evicted. That began to happen already around 2000 BC in Babylonia.
But the process was limited and reversed, because when creditors evicted land-tenured citizens, this caused a problem for rulers. The former landholder no longer was a citizen – and if he’s not a citizen, he can’t serve in the army.
One’s rank in the army down through Roman times was defined by how much land one had. If you had just a basic subsistence plot, you were in the infantry. If you had a lot of land, you were able to support yourself in leisure, have a horse and participate in the cavalry, practicing military training and buying your armour and weapons. You find much the same thing in Japan. All over the world, citizenship, landownership and one’s rank in the army were linked together.
Karl: Yes, the English military had the same arrangement. So you can see a point that if you own lots of land, you want to defend it, so these landowners need to be involved to defend their land. How times have changed.
Michael: They weren’t merely defending; they were also aggressive. There was continual warfare. Attacking and defending also had a financial dimension. In Greece a military manual in the 3 rd century BC was written by a man who took the pseudonym of Tacticus – not Tacitus as in Rome, but Tacticus for tactics. He wrote that if a general planned to attack a city, he should promise to cancel the debts and free the slaves, in order to get the debtors to come over to his side. And if you’re defending a city, you also promise to cancel everyone’s debts and free the slaves. That’s how you get people on your side.
Coriolanus did that in Rome, and Zedekiah in Judah. But both rulers went back on their word as soon as the fighting was over. However, in Babylonia we have more or less regular debt cancellations whenever a new ruler would take the throne. This is in our third volume, Debt & Economic Renewal in the Ancient Near East. Babylonian rulers would proclaim andurarum and misharum, their words for a Clean Slate. David Graeber picked up this historical analysis in Debt: The First 4000 Years, discussing it from an anthropological point of view.
These proclamations did three things – the same three things you find in the biblical jubilee year (which used a cognate word, deror): These acts liberated the debt servants and let them return to their family of origin; they canceled all the personal debts that were owed (but not commercial business debts); and they returned the land rights or crop rights to debtors who had pledged them to their creditors. These royal proclamations restored order by making things the way they were in an idealised past. It was a situation where everybody was supposed to own their own self-support land to provide their means of subsistence free of debt. That was their idea of economic balance.
This is the opposite of debt serfdom reducing more and more people to debt peonage, obliged to pay their income to creditors. If they finally lose their job, they lose their home and their house and the banks get to keep it. That practice would have depopulated the ancient world. If that would have happened, debtors would have just got up and left, or they’d go over to the enemy when other armies would attack. You’d have defections. So reversing personal debts preserved widespread landownership and liberty from debt.
Karl: Right, so reiterating, the Clean Slate would build that social contract with the ruler and help continue the goodwill that led to this massive public development that was voluntarily provided tax in-kind, usually in labor. It sounds fascinating that people would just defect and move to another country under another ruler if the debt stayed too high, even back in those times when we weren’t anywhere near as mobile as today.
Michael: We have all sorts of documents around the 14th and 13th centuries, especially about the hapiru, bands of debt fugitives and others, who some people translate as Hebrews. Rome was said to have been founded by exiles and runaways, mainly runaways from debt who created their own society there. Flight from debt goes way back.
Bronze Age “divine kingship” gives way to classical creditor oligarchies
Karl: Given the history of Clean Slates and the jubilee, how did agrarian debt develop? And how did the conflict of interest between creditors and rulers play out?
Michael: It played out differently everywhere. There was a constant tension from the Bronze Age through classical antiquity between rulers trying to maintain a society under their control, and local headmen trying to get power for themselves. The big question was who would run society and draw up its rules. Would it be the priesthood and military rulers at the top of the pyramid, or creditors and warlords grabbing peoples’ land and trying to create their own control? Strong rulers like Hammurabi were able to centralise rule. He proclaimed andurarum upon taking the throne, and numerous times thereafter, down to his 30th year of rule. When he was sick and dying, his son Samsuiluna also proclaimed misharum to restore order to start his own reign in balance. But then you’d have Intermediate Periods with a free-for-all in which local leaders gained autonomy. And they simply disobeyed royal Clean Slates.
From 1200 BC to about 750 BC in the Mediterranean you have a Dark Age. Apparently you had not only very bad weather around 1200 BC – maybe a small Ice Age and drought – but the weather and crop failures led to mass migrations and invasions. The palaces of Mycenaean Greece were burned and syllabic writing disappeared for nearly 500 years. Then, when you have alphabetic writing emerging, the person whose title originally meant “local branch manager” of the palace workshop suddenly appears as the basileus, the ruler. But mostly you have landholding aristocracies holding the population in debt serfdom (like the Athenian hektimoroi, “sixth parters” liberated by Solon in 594 BC). It was much like the post-Soviet kleptocrats when Red Managers gave themselves control of their companies. When central power falls apart, local headmen take over. The dissolution of royal power led to privatization – including the privatization of credit, taking it and its rules out of royal hands. So Clean Slates stopped.
Much the same thing occurred in England. After the Norman invasion you had the Magna Carta when the autocratic King John tried to grab all the economic surplus for himself. The landowning barons wanted to break free. The Magna Carta limited what kings could tax without landlord agreement. The barons said, in effect, “The rent that we formerly paid to support the royal army, we henceforth will keep for ourselves. Also, we won’t pay the debts we owe to the Jews, so that we can keep our land.” The founding constitution or legal documents of almost every nation have to do with the relationship between finance, land tenure and its tax liability, and the relationship between centralised power and local power.
You could say that the progress of civilisation for the last thousand years, since feudal times, has been a dissolution of autocratic feudal power toward more democratised power. The problem is that land has been democratised on credit. So instead of owing money to landlords, homeowners now owe money to their bankers.
Creditor stratagems to evade the law and religious sanctions
Karl: That is the challenge of the ages isn’t it? Looking through these writings of yours, it becomes clear that this battle between credit and the sovereignty of this democratic process has been an ongoing challenge. In antiquity, did the vocabulary distinguish interest from usury?
Michael: No. It was only in the 13th century that Thomas Aquinas and the Schoolmen distinguished between interest and usury. Any taking of interest was considered usury in antiquity. That’s why some people tried to ban it, mainly for consumer interest. When the distinction was made, usury was supposed to refer to consumer loans, and interest was for bona fide commercial loans. These usually involved shipping to foreign buyers or transferring payments from one country to another, for instance when barons left to fight in the Crusades. The Latin word for such foreign exchange fees was agio, a premium.
Bankers managed to get around Christian sanctions against usury by saying, “Okay, it’s not interest, it’s a fee. It’s a foreign exchange fee.” They would pretend to make a foreign exchange transaction, and pay for the currency convertibility. If you’re converting Australian pounds into dollars, you have to give a few percentage points to the banker. In medieval times, interest was concealed as a foreign exchange fee and as interest or, for real estate, as rent – much as in today’s Islamic finance. This was called “dry exchange,” because it occurred on dry land. No sea transport was involved.
Karl: So when we look over the history of this era and its battle between credit and the ruling elite, the challenge was to maintain land ownership within your community and keep your people there, making sure that they had some share in the benefits of working together. This sort of independence of people being able to live off their land seems to have become a battle between democratic principles and creditors.
Michael: That’s basically so. Early common law had blockages against the things that creditors could foreclose on – the widow’s ox, the blacksmith’s anvil and basic tools of one’s trade and self-support. If you were a creditor and wanted to get somebody else’s land, you needed a legal stratagem.
In Babylonia and neighbouring Indo-European speaking communities such as Hurrian-speaking Nuzi, customary land tenure rights were only transmissible within a family or clan. The aim was to enable kinship units to supply their basic needs. The creditor’s stratagem was to get himself adopted by the debtor as number one son, as his heir. When the debtor died, the number one son, the creditor, would inherit most of the land, as if he were part of the kinship-based community. A Babylonian proverb reflects this practice: “A creditor has many relatives.” These subterfuges that creditors used are much like the small print that bank lobbyists write into today’s bankruptcy laws to stack matters in their own favor. Creditors and Wall Street have always been subtle in finding end runs around laws, obeying the letter of the law but changing the spirit of the law.
The U.S. political outlook: the Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run
Karl: Changing gears, let’s speed into the current American situation with Elizabeth Warren and the Democratic ticket. I saw this week that she’s come out fighting against banks and their threat to reduce donations to the Democratic Party if she doesn’t tone things down. Did your blood boil when you read that Michael?
Michael: Not at all. The Democratic Party in America is the party of Wall Street. A Republican administration could never get away with turning over power to Wall Street, because as long as they’re in power, the Democratic opposition will block them from doing it. Although the Republican Party is almost entirely funded by lobbyists, the Democratic Party is the one that has the power to unblock the giveaways to Wall Street. Most of this is done under former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who got rid of the Glass-Steagall Act, blocked regulation of bank derivative gambles, and inaugurated the wave of deregulation and outright criminalization of banking.
The Glass-Steagall Act was repealed in 1999, when the Clinton Administration also blocked regulation for bank speculation in derivatives. It took only eight years for the most criminal organisations, Citibank and Bank of America (which bought the junk mortgage writer, Countrywide Finance) to bring down the economy. The head of Citibank was Rubin, after having freed it from regulation. What the press called the Rubino Gang wrote fake mortgages – they’re called “liar’s loans” or “Alt-A,” based on false declarations of income and false property valuations (the liars were the banks and the mortgage brokers) and sold them to gullible investors like German Landesbanks that were naïve enough to believe that Wall Street wouldn’t try to cheat them. The junk mortgage bubble was one of the biggest ripoffs in history.
You can read what my UMKC colleague Bill Black has written recently on Naked Capitalism and the University of Missouri Kansas City site, New Economic Perspectives on the Citibank criminogenic organisation. The Democrats under Obama have blocked any prosecution of financial criminals. Not a single bank crook has been thrown in jail after over $4 trillion had been stolen and bailed out by the Federal Reserve’s wave of Quantitative Easing. The crime wave of Wall Street and real estate in the last decade has endowed an entire ruling class for the next century in America.
They’re as criminal as the Russian kleptocrats, because they’re in total control of the government. They’ve used their power to re-define the meaning of a “free market.” To them, a free market is one completely free of government regulations to control banking, and free of any criminal prosecution, because they have their factotums in the Justice Department. The head of the Justice Department is Eric Holder, whose job is to protect Wall Street. He resigned recently in favour of a successor, Loretta Lynch, who also is a non-prosecutor of Wall Street’s.
So essentially the real estate and mortgage system in America has been criminalised in the way that Bill Black has been describing in four wonderful articles that he’s published in the last week on Naked Capitalism. Hillary is fully on board with the Rubinomics gang.
Finance capitalism is dominating and stifling industrial capitalism with debt deflation
Karl:Excellent Michael, I’ll look forward to reading those. That’s the horror story of banking, but I like the fact that you’ve dug into the archives and found one of the bright spots for the finance industry, and that was the Saint-Simonian banking ethos. Can you remind our listeners what that was all about, and how we hope the finance sector might evolve?
Michael: In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution was really taking off. The great financial question was how to create a banking system that would help industrialise countries to bring them into the modern era. Before the 19th century – ever since antiquity – you don’t find banks lending to build factories or other means of production. Loans were made against property pledged as collateral, or were made largely to export goods once they were produced. But banking before the 19th century did not actually fund tangible capital investment. James Watt wasn’t able to get the money for his steam engine from a bank, except by mortgaging his property and borrowing from friends.
Saint-Simon founded a school of reformers in France that realized that in order to industrialise the nation, catch up with England and overtake it, it had to move banking beyond its medieval stage. Instead of making lending to businesses in exchange for interest payments – which can force them into bankruptcy when sales turn down, bank loans should really be made on the basis of profit sharing. This is how commercial loans were made back in Babylonian times. Saint-Simon’s idea was to make banks more like mutual funds. Their fortunes would rise or fall with those of their business clients.
The main country that adopted this industrial banking principle was Germany as well as other central European countries. Their banks invested in their customers as stock owners as well as acting as creditors. They acted basically as the forward planning arm of industry, working with governments to promote export sales abroad.
Until World War I most futurists, from Karl Marx to regular businessmen, expected banks to take the lead in planning society. But after Germany lost World War I, the world reverted to Anglo-American banking. This was basically short-term hit and run. Banks still don’t make loans for industrial development. They do lend for raiders and mergers to take over companies, and also to ship exports. But they’re not set up to actually fund industrial capital formation. So society has fallen back in the last hundred years to the opposite of what classical economists and what 19th-century futurists expected banking to become.
Although we do have a centrally planned society, it is centrally planned by Wall Street, the City of London, Frankfurt and other financial centres. This planning is extractive, not productive. It seeks to extract interest payments, to profiteer from takeovers and gambles, and to make capital gains on stocks and real estate speculation. But it’s not designed to industrialise economies. That’s why most of the world outside of China is in a period of economic shrinkage and de-industrialisation.
Karl: So to wrap things up Michael, what can we learn from the Ancient Near East? Perhaps you can tell us how you got interested in this historical topic going way back through these cuneiform readings of clay tablets.
Michael: For me, the advantage of studying the ancient Near East is to see how different economies through history have dealt with the phenomenon of debts that are too large to be paid. Right now you’re having in the Eurozone with its arguments against Greece saying that if its government can’t pay its debts to the IMF, European Central Bank and the rest of the troika, it has to submit to austerity, even if its population is forced to emigrate. That is what much of the Greek population is doing. Shrinkage and emigration is what has to be paid for not being able to cancel debts – in this case public debts. The ancient Near East couldn’t afford the Eurozone’s pro-creditor stance, because it would have been depopulated and been conquered by neighbouring countries that didn’t submit to such austerity.
The advantage of studying the ancient Near East is to see a contrast with today. I got into this originally when I was working with the United Nations Institute for Training & Research (UNITAR) in 1978 and ’79. We had a meeting in Mexico and I gave a lecture on what I’d found when I was Chase Manhattan banks’ balance-of-payments economist. The Third World couldn’t pay the foreign debts it had run up. This was a few years before Mexico declared it couldn’t pay in 1982. There was such a fuss and denials by the banks that countries couldn’t pay that I decided to write a history of how societies had dealt with situations where debts couldn’t be paid. I got all the way back to classical antiquity and the Jewish lands, and then found that there wasn’t any economic history of the early Near East. The economic and financial details were scattered through many journals.
In 1984, I went up to Harvard and a decade later we decided to put together a group to study the origins of economic organization, category by category, to trace how ancient economies developed the origins of modern economic civilisation. The five books you cited earlier were the result, as well as many articles you put in my website.
Karl: Well Michael Hudson, thank you very much for joining us here on the Renegade Economists’ radio show yet again, that must be about our fifteenth interview I reckon.
Michael: Good, thank you.
“Tax day” comes and goes each year, but unfortunately, the systemic issues that plague American taxpayers linger on without resolution well past the mid-April deadline.
The U.S. tax code has long been manipulated by corporate lobbyists and their corporate tax attorneys. (President Jimmy Carter once called the loophole-ridden tax laws “a disgrace to the human race.”) A primary purpose of these perforations is to arrange the law and regulations so that certain categories of profit-rich companies can avoid paying their fair share to Uncle Sam.
In many states, it is a literal race to the bottom for elected officials to offer corporations sweeter tax deals to keep jobs in their locality — see the 2013 Boeing controversy in the state of Washington, in which the aerospace industry, much of which is made up of Boeing, was awarded $8.7 billion in tax breaks over 16 years to produce the 777X jetliner in-state. Notably, Boeing paid zero in federal income tax that year — along with many other major U.S. corporations such as GE and Verizon. Some of these Fortune 500 companies even get a rebate check!
According to Citizens for Tax Justice, “American Fortune 500 corporations are avoiding up to $600 billion in U.S. federal income taxes by holding more than $2.1 trillion” of retained profits offshore, which they designate as “permanently reinvested” to avoid a tax liability.
And of course, millionaires and billionaires often pay less in taxes than middle-class Americans do, taking full advantage of tax loopholes, deductions, deferrals and other forms of creative accounting. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives now intends to pass legislation to repeal the estate tax, which would see that “vast amounts of money that has never been taxed will be passed tax-free to the heirs of today’s billionaires,” according to Scott Klinger of the Center for Effective Government.
The end result is that, through a myriad of tax avoidance schemes, the wealthy 1 percent continue to profit using public resources, subsidies and infrastructure while the 99 percent disproportionately pay the bills for it — all while struggling to pay their own bills, mortgages, student loans, and more. And when Wall Street runs amok, it’s the taxpayers who have paid the bills for the catastrophic damage as a result of regulatory surrender. Millions of these taxpayers also lost their jobs and pensions in the 2008-2009 Wall Street collapse of our economy.
This brings us to the Internal Revenue Service — which has been made into a dirty word to many Americans. Those Americans might be surprised to learn, however, that the current IRS enforcement budget is $10.9 billion, after a cut of $346 million from the previous year. To put that in perspective, Apple Inc. spent $14 billion just to buy back its own stock last year, a move that only serves to provide a meager benefit, if that, to its shareholders, while nourishing executive compensation packages.
The IRS loses an estimated $300 billion a year due to tax evasion. A budget proposal by the Obama administration claimed that the IRS could bring in an additional $6 for every dollar it adds to the enforcement budget. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said that he pushes this very convincing point in Congress to little reception or reaction. “I say that and everybody shrugs and goes on about their business,” he told the AP in 2014. “I have not figured out either philosophically or psychologically why nobody seems to care whether we collect the revenue or not.”
The effects of these budgetary cuts are already being seen. Current staffing levels at the IRS are at 87,000 — the lowest since the early 1980s. The agency lost 13,000 employees from 2010 to 2014 and expects to lose another 3,000 this year. In the final stretch towards April 15, many taxpayers have experienced excruciatingly long waits on hold and long lines at local IRS offices as a result. Congress doesn’t care. (National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson, who operates independently within the IRS, detailed this degradation of service in her annual report to Congress. (See taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov.)
Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has gone so far as to publicly state his intention to abolish the IRS entirely, calling that radical course of action the “simplest and best tax reform.” It’s not clear how Senator Cruz intends the federal government to collect revenue to pay for his presidential salary, the White House budget and expanding his giant military budget if he should be elected and not recover his senses.
It is clear, however, that significant rational tax reform is necessary. What remains unclear is who will benefit the most from such reform. Americans must seriously ask why individual U.S. taxpayers are fronting the money for hugely profitable corporations. These are funds that could potentially be used to repair critical public infrastructure, create decently paying jobs, or simply reduce the tax burden on middle-income individuals.
One solution to ensure that the interests of small taxpayers are accounted for and protected is to establish taxpayer watchdog associations across the country. These organizations would work full-time in each state to make sure that individual taxpayers get the best deal possible. After all, big corporations can afford to support an army of tax accountants and attorneys to continually update the playbook of tactics to avoid having to pay their fair share. Most taxpayers don’t have this luxury. What they do have, however, is sheer force of numbers. Organization of such watchdog organizations could be facilitated by including a notice on the 1040 tax return inviting people to pay a small due and join these advocacy and educational nonprofit groups. These associations would be supported by membership dues and would receive no tax money. The members would elect a board of directors that could hire researchers, organizers, accountants and lawyers.
Such pressure from united citizen bodies would provide the organizational mechanism to enhance the influence of individuals in the tax-collection and policy-making process — something that is much-needed in our current American plutocracy.
A simple motto to consider when asking what we choose to tax is: “Tax what they burn, not what we earn.” Before we place the largest burdens of taxation on workers, we should tax areas that have the greatest potential negative or damaging influence on our economy and our society. Tax the polluters, the Wall Street speculators, the junk-food peddlers, and the corporate criminals. Consider that just a fraction of a 1-percent sales tax on speculation in derivatives and trading in stocks could bring in $300 billion a year! (See robinhoodtax.org.)
If taxpayers really want to protect their interests, they must organize and fight for them. The corporations certainly have the money — but they can’t match the manpower or votes of an organized citizenry.
In the meantime, big corporations on welfare like Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Pfizer, General Electric, Weyerhaeuser, and ExxonMobile should declare April 15 to be Taxpayer Appreciation Day. The corporate welfare kings should have the decency to, at least, thank smaller taxpayers who pay for all the freeloading that the corporatists have rammed through Congress. (See goodjobsfirst.org for much more on this issue.)
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Giant financial institutions that benefitted from federal bailouts during the depths of the recession have repaid the American people’s largesse by hiding profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.
According to a report (pdf) commissioned by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), four big banks—Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase—which received massive amounts of money and loan guarantees to keep them afloat in the wake of the financial crisis, park large amounts of money in tax haven nations.
Citigroup got the most help of the four in the bailout, $2.5 trillion. That company has at least 427 offshore divisions where it squirrels away profits out of reach of the American people. Those funds, as of early 2014, totaled $43.8 billion, which would mean $11.7 billion in tax revenue for the United States if they were brought to this country. Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat was rewarded with $1.5 million in salary, $4.5 million in bonuses and $8 million in stock for his work in 2014.
Bank of America received a $1.3 trillion bailout from the American people. In 2014, it had $17 billion in profits stashed offshore, which would bring $4.3 billion in funding for education, infrastructure and other badly needed projects in the United States. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan made $1.5 million in salary, $13 million in bonuses and $11.5 million in stock in 2014.
JPMorgan Chase got a $416 billion bailout from American taxpayers. That bank has hidden $28.5 billion overseas which would bring in $6.4 billion to the U.S. Treasury. Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was paid $1.5 million in salary, $7.4 million in bonuses and $11.1 million in company stock in 2014.
Goldman Sachs was the recipient of $814 billion in virtually zero-interest loans, as well as $10 billion from the government. It’s holding $22.5 billion offshore that would bring $4.1 billion back to the American people. Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein made $2 million in salary, $7.33 million in bonuses and $7.33 million in stock in 2014.
Of course, banks aren’t the only companies taking advantage of tax havens. Apple, for instance, famously worked it out so two of its subsidiaries have no home country to which to pay taxes. But then Apple didn’t come hat-in-hand begging the American people not to let it go under.
To Learn More:
Legalized Tax Fraud: How Top U.S. Corporations Continue to Profit Through Offshore Tax Havens (by Senator Bernie Sanders, U.S. Senate) (pdf)
Offshore Shell Games (U.S. PIRG) (pdf)
The Bailouts 4 Years Later: Were They Worthwhile Investments? (by Matt Bewig, AllGov )
In order to overcome massive US and world public opposition to new wars in the Middle East, Obama relied on the horrific internet broadcasts of ISIS slaughtering two American hostages, the journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff, by decapitation. These brutal murders were Obama’s main propaganda tool to set a new Middle East war agenda – his own casus belli bonanza!
This explains the US Administration’s threats of criminal prosecution against the families of Foley and Sotloff when they sought to ransom their captive sons from ISIS.
With the American mass media repeatedly showing the severed heads of these two helpless men, public indignation and disgust were aroused with calls for US military involvement to stop the terror. US and EU political leaders presented the decapitations of Western hostages by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) as a direct and mortal threat to the safety of civilians in the US and Europe. The imagery evoked was of black-clad faceless terrorists, armed to the teeth, invading Europe and the US and executing innocent families as they begged for rescue and mercy.
The problem with this propaganda ploy is not the villainy and brutal crimes celebrated by ISIS, but the fact that Obama’s closest ally in his seventh war in six years is Saudi Arabia, a repugnant kingdom which routinely decapitates its prisoners in public without any judicial process recognizable as fair by civilized standards – unless tortured ‘confessions’ are now a Western norm. During August 2014, when ISIS decapitated two American captives, Riyadh beheaded fourteen prisoners. Since the beginning of the year the Saudi monarchy has decapitated more than 46 prisoners and chopped off the arms and limbs of many more. During Obama and Kerry’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, horrendous decapitations were displayed in public. These atrocities did not dim the bright smile on Barak Obama’s face as he strolled with his genial royal Saudi executioners, in stark contrast to the US President’s stern and angry countenance as he presented the ISIS killing of two Americans as his pretext for bombing Syria.
The Western mass media are silent in the face of the Saudi Kingdom’s common practice of public decapitation. Not one among the major news corporations, the BBC, the Financial Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CBS and NPR, have questioned the moral authority of a US President who engages in selective condemnation of ISIS while ignoring the official Saudi state beheadings and the amputations.
Decapitation and Dismemberment: By Dagger and Drones
The ISIS internet videos showing gaunt, orange-suited Western prisoners and their lopped-off heads have evoked widespread dismay and fear. We are repeatedly told: ‘ISIS is coming to get us!’ But ISIS is open and public about their criminal acts against helpless hostages. We cannot say the same about the decapitations and dismemberment of the hundreds of victims of US drone attacks. When a drone fires its missiles on a home, a school, wedding party or vehicle, the bodies of living people are dismembered, macerated, decapitated and burned beyond recognition – all by remote control. The carnage is not videoed or displayed for mass consumption by Obama’s high command. Indeed, civilian deaths, if even acknowledged, are brushed off as ‘collateral damage’ while the vaporized remnants of men, women and children have been described by US troops as ‘pink foam’.
If the brutal decapitation and dismemberment of innocent civilians is a capital crime that should be punished, as I believe it is, then both ISIS and the Obama regime with his allied leaders should face a people’s war crimes tribunal in the countries where the crimes occurred.
There are good reasons to view Washington’s close relation with the Saudi royal beheaders as part of a much broader alliance with terror-evoking brutality. For decades, the US drug agencies and banks have worked closely with criminal drug cartels in Mexico while glossing over their notorious practice of decapitating, dismembering and displaying their victims, be they local civilians, courageous journalists, captured police or migrants fleeing the terror of Central America. The notorious Zetas and the Knights Templar have penetrated the highest reaches of the Mexican federal and local governments, turning state officials and institutions into submissive and obedient clients. Over 100,000 Mexicans have lost their lives because of this ‘state within a state’, an ‘ISIS’ in Mexico – just ‘South of the Border’. And just like ISIS in the Middle East, the cartels get their weapons from the US imported right across the Texas and Arizona borders. Despite this gruesome terror on the US southern flank, the nation’s principle banks, including Bank of America, CitiBank, Wells Fargo and many others have laundered billions of dollars of drug profits for the cartels. For example, the discovery of 49 decapitated bodies in one mass in May 2014 did not prompt Washington to form a world-wide coalition to bomb Mexico, nor was it moved to arrest the Wall Street bankers laundering the ‘beheaders bloody booty’.
Obama’s hysterical and very selective presentation of ISIS crimes forms the pretext for launching another war against a predominantly Muslim country, Syria, while shielding his close ally, the royal Saudi decapitator from US public outrage. ISIS crimes have become another excuse to launch a campaign of ‘mass decapitation by drones and bombers’. The mass propaganda campaign over one crime against humanity becomes the basis for perpetrating even worse crimes against humanity. Many hundreds of innocent civilians in Syria and Iraq will be dismembered by ‘anti-terrorist’ bombs and drones unleashed by another of Obama’s ‘coalition’.
The localized savagery of ISIS will be multiplied, amplified and spread by the US-directed ‘coalition of the willing decapitators’. The terror of hooded beheaders on the ground will be answered and expanded by their faceless counterparts in the air, while delicately hiding the heads rolling through the public squares of Riyadh or the headless bodies displayed along the highways of Mexico … and especially ignoring the hidden victims of US-Saudi aggression in the towns and villages of Syria.
While the US government touted its “record” settlement reached this week with Bank of America for mortgage fraud that helped fuel the 2008 recession, the details of the agreement indicate yet another light punishment for an offending Wall Street titan.
Bank of America agreed to a $16.65 billion settlement with federal authorities for selling toxic mortgages and misleading investors, the US Justice Department announced Thursday.
“This historic resolution – the largest such settlement on record – goes far beyond ‘the cost of doing business,’” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
“Under the terms of this settlement, the bank has agreed to pay $7 billion in relief to struggling homeowners, borrowers, and communities affected by the bank’s conduct. This is appropriate given the size and scope of the wrongdoing at issue,” Holder added.
Yet the $7 billion in “relief” is considered a “soft money” fine, in which the bank will reduce some homeowners’ mortgages. Very few homeowners are eligible for the refinancing pursuant to the settlement, AP reported. Those who are eligible may need to wait years to see any settlement aid, as payouts will be ongoing through 2018.
Those already in the hole following a lost home due to foreclosure or a short sale – when a lender takes less money for a home than what the borrower owes – are unlikely to benefit from the terms of the settlement.
Outside of the $7 billion for consumers, the Bank of America settlement includes a $5 billion cash penalty and $4.6 billion in remediation payments. Large portions of the deal will be eligible to claim as business expenses, allowing the mega bank to treat them as tax write-offs.
The Bank of America settlement includes the appointment of an independent monitor to review the consumer relief portion of the agreement. It is yet to be determined when the monitor will be named.
The deal echoes similar agreements the government reached with other Wall Street players, like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, for crimes committed surrounding the recent economic recession.
JPMorgan Chase came to a $13 billion settlement in November. The $4 billion supposedly offered to homeowner relief has yet to benefit many in need, according to the advocacy group Home Defenders League. Citigroup reached a $7 billion deal with the government.
Critics of these deals have blasted the US government for its ongoing, lax attitude regarding mass crimes committed by powerful banks that, they say, are not adequately punished for wrongdoing.
“[T]he latest round of settlements deals with misconduct that even though the banks are getting off on the cheap again, the underlying abuses don’t strike at the heart of the too big to fail mortgage securitization complex,” said Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism.
“So the [Obama] Administration can feign being a little more bloody-minded. Even so, the greater and greater proportion in recent deals of funny money relative to real dough show that this is simply another variant of an exercise in optics.”
No major bank executive has faced criminal charges following the mortgage crisis. Without significant retribution for banks and executives that knowingly passed off fraudulent mortgages, Wall Street players will continue to act with impunity, argued Dean Baker, economist and director of the Center for Economic & Policy Research.
“Knowingly packaging and selling fraudulent mortgages is fraud. It is a serious crime that could be punished by years in jail,” Baker wrote. “The risk of jail time is likely to discourage bankers from engaging in this sort of behavior.”
William D. Cohan, a former senior mergers and acquisitions banker, wrote in the New York Times that, not only has the government barely punished those on the hook for Wall Street crimes, the Justice Department has also offered “sanitized” versions of events that led up to the crimes in its accounts given to the public following investigations.
“The American people are deprived of knowing precisely how bad things got inside these banks in the years leading up to the financial crisis, and the banks, knowing they will be saved the humiliation caused by the public airing of a trove of emails and documents, will no doubt soon be repeating their callous and indifferent behavior,” Cohan wrote.
Bank of America resisted the settlement at first, claiming nearly all bad mortgage securities under scrutiny came from Countrywide and Merrill Lynch. Both firms were purchased by Bank of America amid the 2008 financial crisis.
A federal judge in Manhattan ruled in a separate case that Bank of America was liable for the pre-merger mortgages, issuing a penalty of $1.3 billion. The ruling pushed the bank to agree to the settlement. Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan said Thursday that the deal is “in the best interests of our shareholders and allows us to continue to focus on the future.”
Meanwhile, consumers advocates said the faulty mortgages will continue to haunt homeowners and their own vision of the future.
“It is hard to see how these settlements provide relief commensurate with the harm caused,” said Kevin Stein, associate director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, according to AP. “Countless families and communities have been devastated by predatory loans that should not have been made.”
Following the Thursday announcement of the settlement, Bank of America’s stock rose more than 4 percent.
Jeff Olson, the 40-year-old man who is being prosecuted for scrawling anti-megabank messages on sidewalks in water-soluble chalk last year now faces a 13-year jail sentence. A judge has barred his attorney from mentioning freedom of speech during trial.
According to the San Diego Reader, which reported on Tuesday that a judge had opted to prevent Olson’s attorney from “mentioning the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech during the trial,” Olson must now stand trial for on 13 counts of vandalism.
In addition to possibly spending years in jail, Olson will also be held liable for fines of up to $13,000 over the anti-big-bank slogans that were left using washable children’s chalk on a sidewalk outside of three San Diego, California branches of Bank of America, the massive conglomerate that received $45 billion in interest-free loans from the US government in 2008-2009 in a bid to keep it solvent after bad bets went south.
The Reader reports that Olson’s hearing had gone as poorly as his attorney might have expected, with Judge Howard Shore, who is presiding over the case, granting Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard’s motion to prohibit attorney Tom Tosdal from mentioning the United States’ fundamental First Amendment rights.
“The State’s Vandalism Statute does not mention First Amendment rights,” ruled Judge Shore on Tuesday.
Upon exiting the courtroom Olson seemed to be in disbelief.
“Oh my gosh,” he said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Tosdal, who exited the courtroom shortly after his client, seemed equally bewildered.
“I’ve never heard that before, that a court can prohibit an argument of First Amendment rights,” said Tosdal.
Olson, who worked as a former staffer for a US Senator from Washington state, was said to involve himself in political activism in tandem with the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
On October 3, 2011, Olson first appeared outside of a Bank of America branch in San Diego, along with a homemade sign. Eight days later Olson and his partner, Stephen Daniels, during preparations for National Bank Transfer Day, the two were confronted by Darell Freeman, the Vice President of Bank of America’s Global Corporate Security.
A former police officer, Freeman accused Olson and Daniels of “running a business outside of the bank,” evidently in reference to the National Bank Transfer Day activities, which was a consumer activism initiative that sought to promote Americans to switch from commercial banks, like Bank of America, to not-for-profit credit unions.
At the time, Bank of America’s debit card fees were among one of the triggers that led Occupy Wall Street members to promote the transfer day.
“It was just an empty threat,” says Olson of Freeman’s accusations. “He was trying to scare me away. To be honest, it did at first. I even called my bank and they said he couldn’t do anything like that.”
Olson continued to protest outside of Bank of America. In February 2012, he came across a box of chalk at a local pharmacy and decided to begin leaving his mark with written statements.
“I thought it was a perfect way to get my message out there. Much better than handing out leaflets or holding a sign,” says Olson.
Over the course of the next six months Olson visited the Bank of America branch a few days per week, leaving behind scribbled slogans such as “Stop big banks” and “Stop Bank Blight.com.”
According to Olson, who spoke with local broadcaster KGTV, one Bank of America branch claimed it had cost $6,000 to clean up the chalk writing.
Public records obtained by the Reader show that Freeman continued to pressure members of San Diego’s Gang Unit on behalf of Bank of America until the matter was forwarded to the City Attorney’s office.
On April 15, Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard contacted Freeman with a response on his persistent queries.
“I wanted to let you know that we will be filing 13 counts of vandalism as a result of the incidents you reported,” said Hazard.
Arguments for Olson’s case are set to be heard Wednesday morning, following jury selection.
Having bungled the so-called independent review of foreclosure mistakes, the Obama administration has now decided that the best way to help homeowners is to have the banks—which were responsible for the foreclosure errors—examine the case files and decide how best to fix the situation.
In January, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) shut down the foreclosure review by independent consultants—which had already cost about $2 billion— after it was revealed that the banks had selected said consultants. The process also proved to be taking too long to resolve homeowner grievances, so the administration decided to reach a $3.6 billion settlement with the banks.
But before the money can be distributed to individuals wronged during the foreclosure crisis, more than four million cases need to be reviewed. Instead of federal regulators doing the work, they are trusting the financial institutions, including Bank of America and Wells Fargo, to do it properly this time.
Housing advocates, not surprisingly, are worried the banks will shortchange homeowners while they scrutinize their earlier mistakes. “The whole process has been a slap in the face to homeowners and a slap on the wrist to banks,” Isaac Simon Hodes, an organizer with Massachusetts-based Lynn United for Change, told The New York Times. “The latest development shows how there has been no accountability.”
The OCC has promised to check the bank’s work to ensure things go right this time.
- Big Banks Slither out of Mortgage Fraud Review with Minor Costs (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Big Banks Put In Charge of (Their Own) Foreclosure Settlement Payout (reason.com)
Why the Feds Won’t Prosecute the Big Wall Street Banks
Yesterday the Department of Justice and 49 state attorneys general announced the long anticipated $25 billion deal with 5 large Wall Street firms — Bank of America Corporation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Company, Citigroup Inc. and Ally Financial Inc. — to settle foreclosure and mortgage servicing abuses. Unfortunately, the settlement is not yet 24 hours old and cracks are emerging.
Each major corruption settlement with Wall Street, and they are legion over the past 15 years, triggers a commemorative magazine cover. I keep some favorites handy.
The October 1996 cover of Registered Representative Magazine, the trade magazine for financial consultants and stock brokers, blared in 48 point bold red type: “How the NASD Was Corrupted.” That issue focused on the years of price fixing of stocks traded on the Nasdaq market by the biggest firms on Wall Street while the self regulatory body, the National Association of Securities Dealers, was dominated by the same firms and looked the other way. (Think SEC today.)
The Department of Justice, then under Janet Reno, had this to say about the settlement: “We have found substantial evidence of coercion and other misconduct in this industry. By providing for the random monitoring of traders’ telephone calls, we expect to deter future price fixing on Nasdaq.” At the time, Reno said the “law does not provide the Department with statutory authority to recover damages or monetary penalties in such cases.”
The next big corruption probe drew a giant green serpent wrapped around the street sign for Wall Street on the cover of BusinessWeek with the rhetorical question: “Wall Street: How Corrupt Is It?” That settlement collectively cost the big firms $1.4 billion for peddling fake stock research to the public to induce investors to buy bad companies while the same analysts called the firms “dogs” and “crap” in internal emails. The announcement of the deal came on April 28, 2003 from the SEC, the New York Attorney General of that day, Eliot Spitzer, the NASD, the New York Stock Exchange and state securities regulators — all gushing over how great this deal was for the public and how it was going to reform Wall Street.
New York Magazine has found an odd way of commemorating the crumbs available to illegally evicted and displaced children and families under the current settlement. The current magazine cover has a Wall Street guy clasping his… uh…private portfolio…with the headline: “The
Emasculation of Wall Street.” If Wall Street is being emasculated, you sure can’t tell it from yesterday’s settlement.
Not only did Wall Street settle its robo-signing, illegal foreclosures and servicing problems with the Department of Justice and 49 state attorneys general (Oklahoma settled independently) but lost in the headlines was that the two major regulators of national banks, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Reserve, also settled with the biggest Wall Street banks in a decidedly cozy deal that effectively lets them off without a monetary fine as long as they pay under the federal-state settlement agreement.
The OCC settled with Bank of America, Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo for a combined $394 million but here’s the cozy part: “the OCC agrees to hold in abeyance imposition of such penalties provided the servicers make payments and take other actions under the federal-state settlement with a value equal to at least the penalty amounts that each servicer acknowledges that the OCC could impose…”
The Federal Reserve issued monetary sanctions of $766.5 million against the parent holding companies: Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Ally Financial, Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Wells Fargo & Co. and two mortgage servicers GMAC Mortgage, LLC a subsidiary of Ally Financial, Inc., and EMC Mortgage Corporation, a subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase & Co. But again, the Wall Street firms can get off the hook for paying these sums by simply paying them under the $25 billion federal-state settlement.
The specifics of just what the state attorneys general agreed to is unknown, even to some of the attorneys general. According to the web site set up to inform the public about the settlement both the primary “Settlement Document” and the “Executive Summary” will be “coming soon.” Without those documents available for public perusal, there is the reasonable suspicion that the public has once again been feted to lipstick on a pig, as they like to say on Wall Street.
One striking problem is that California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris states on her web site and in this video that California is getting $18 billion. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi
says on her web site that Florida is receiving $8.4 billion. Those two amounts would leave a negative figure for the other 47 states that agreed to the $25 billion deal.
There’s also something peculiar about the Federal Department of Justice and 49 states setting up an informational web site that ends in .com instead of .gov. Register.com shows the web site has used a privacy shield to block the name of the owner of the site.
Corporate media is reporting that the deal settles only foreclosure and servicing abuses. But this web site states: “The agreement settles only some aspects of the banks conduct related to the financial crisis (foreclosure practices, loan servicing, and origination of loans) in return for the second largest state attorneys general recovery in history and direct relief to distressed borrowers while they can still use it.” The Florida Attorney General concedes on her web site that the deal with the state includes loan origination issues. That may not sit well with residents of a state where massive loan origination frauds occurred.
I called the AG’s office in Massachusetts – historically a tough regulator when it comes to Wall Street. The spokesperson could not answer why loan origination is included on the settlement web site.
Why is mortgage loan origination a big deal? Because tens of thousands of consumers were victimized in a bait and switch racket, believing they were getting a fixed rate mortgage only to find out a few years down the road that they had an adjustable rate mortgage that reset and doubled or even tripled their monthly payment – making it impossible to stay in their home; an effective wealth stripping enterprise by Wall Street against decent, hardworking families across America.
Other abuses in loan origination abounded. The Federal Trade Commission took this testimony from Michele V. Handzel, a former Branch Manager for CitiFinancial, a unit of Citigroup. Ms. Handzel is comparing the practices of CitiFinancial after it acquired another firm, The Associates.
“CitiFinancial put much more pressure on employees than the Associates did to include as many credit insurance and ancillary products as possible on every loan….In fact, I feel that the credit insurance sales practices at CitiFinancial were worse than at The Associates. From January to June 2001, the policy was that no personal loan at CitiFinancial would be approved if it did not include some type of credit insurance, nor would a real estate loan be approved without some type of ancillary product…There were several internal measures in place to effectuate this policy. For instance, District Managers would frequently refuse to send a loan to underwriting if it did not include some type of insurance product. Moreover, loans that were closed and did not include any insurance would be identified by CitiFinancial’s internal insurance auditors, and the employee who closed the loan would be written up…Closings at CitiFinancial resembled those at The Associates – they were brief. Personal loan closings took approximately 10 minutes. Real estate loan closings took a little longer but also did not provide a lot of details about the loan. At CitiFinancial, I was instructed to do a ‘closed folder’ closing, meaning that information would be discussed orally first. Only after the borrower indicated that he wanted to sign would the employee open the folder and have the borrower sign the papers.”
In the past, Wall Street knew it could steal billions and settle with its easily maneuvered regulators for millions. It did this time and time again, never having to admit to any crime. Wall Street translated this to mean that crime was a lucrative profit center. This latest settlement raises the potential of this profit center. Wall Street now understands that it can steal trillions and settle for billions.
And just why is it that the Feds can’t or won’t prosecute the biggest of the Wall Street firms? Because they are the Federal Government’s bond brokers, the primary dealers who contractually agree to buy Treasury bills or notes or bonds at every U.S. Treasury auction. They may be serially corrupt, but Uncle Sam needs those contractual guarantees of its primary dealers to be sure it can pull off its debt auctions. And the U.S. government cannot engage in contracts with convicted financial felons.
And it won’t break up these bloated behemoths because big balance sheets are just what a government with $15 trillion in debt is looking for in a bond broker.
Pam Martens worked on Wall Street for 21 years. She spent the last decade of her career advocating against Wall Street’s private justice system, which keeps its crimes shielded from public courtrooms. She maintains, along with Russ Martens, an ongoing archive dedicated to this financial era at www.WallStreetOnParade.com. She has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article. She is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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