Democrats are helping Republicans unleash Wall Street. What could go wrong?
A hefty package of bank deregulation passed the House of Representatives earlier this week, after being passed by the Senate back in March. It now goes to Trump to be signed into law. The majority of votes were Republican, of course, but some 33 Democrats also joined — some 17 percent of the House Democratic caucus, which is at least less than the 16 (or 34 percent of) Senate Democrats.
But even so, those votes are a grotesque betrayal of the American people and a spectacular political own goal on the part of these so-called "moderate" Democrats. It harms the great majority of people who do not work on Wall Street, and makes another devastating financial crisis — one which might shatter the political fortunes of the Democratic Party — more likely.
At bottom, bank deregulation is pretty simple. As Mike Konczal demonstrates, the share of the economy going to the financial sector has more than doubled since the 1950s, while its share of corporate profits has more than tripled. What's more, financial products have become less productive over that time. Wall Street is getting paid drastically more while becoming worse at its job. What gives?
Look around you: Big Finance is using borrowing, contracts, the stock market, derivatives, and other financial instruments to suck the value out of the actually productive parts of the economy. That was the ultimate result of the rolling back of New Deal regulations from the mid-1970s on.
Sometimes this is plainly obvious. In my own profession of journalism, finance has rolled up great collections of local newspapers, which it strips of assets and workers, and collects a large payout in the time between the evisceration of the product and mass subscriber cancellation and bankruptcy. (One oligarch has accumulated some 16 Palm Beach mansions in this way.) Banksters killed Toys "R" Us, Motorola, Trans World Airlines, and dozens of other companies. Univision might be next to succumb.
Sometimes it is more subtle, as with the enormous influence finance has over Federal Reserve policy — both in nearly half the seats on the Fed's governing board and the cultural pressure it can bring to bear. Whenever unemployment gets low, there is a coordinated spasm of anxiety over inflation from Wall Street and its squadrons of trained-monkey economists, all demanding rate hikes to slow growth and job creation, even if price increases are nowhere to be seen. "[W]hen the economy looks too strong, Wall Street demands that the Fed tighten in order to slow the economy down to a crawl," writes Doug Henwood in his book Wall Street.
The reason is that if the economy is booming and labor markets are very tight, pricing power may revert to workers, and they may begin to collect a larger share of the corporate surplus — or worse, gain confidence and begin to assert themselves politically. If growth and demand are very strong, there may indeed be shortages of supplies and workers, leading to some inflation, thus painfully eroding the nominal value of money and assets. Wall Street likes it best when the economy is somewhat saggy, with a timid and frightened working class. That way profits are fat, easy, and unchallenged.
Most important of all is the broader economic damage caused by Wall Street-induced economic crises. The American economy has never fully recovered from the 2008 crash, which deleted trillions in wealth and led to an apparently permanent sharp decrease in the rate of growth. As economist J.W. Mason demonstrates, today U.S. GDP per person per year is about 15 percent (or about $3 trillion in total GDP) below its 1945-2007 trend — and the gap is growing, not closing. The Wall Street-inflated housing bubble was not just a world-historical spree of greed and crime, it also basically injected the economy's bone marrow with poison.
All that background is important to keep in mind when considering this particular bill, because finance's legions of well-paid lickspittles are out in force trying to muddy the waters, claiming it's no big deal and the critics are overstating things.
While it certainly could be worse, it's still extremely bad. As Mike Konczal details, it "removes protections for 25 of the top 38 banks; weakens regulations on the biggest players and encourages them to manipulate regulations for their benefit; and saps consumer protections." One notable provision removes requirements that smaller banks collect data on loan discrimination. (It seems not being racist is cutting into profits.) And as Ben Walsh writes, this is just part of the deregulatory agenda, much of which is being carried out within the executive branch.
Indeed, the limp justification that smaller community banks (who are incidentally also raking in fat profits) somehow need relief from Dodd-Frank has been blown apart before the bill has even become law. As David Dayen notes, the bill is actually destroying such banks, as medium-sized ones anticipating looser regulatory scrutiny for bigger balance sheets have started snapping up their smaller rivals.
Fundamentally, there is simply no reason to be granting Wall Street any leeway of any kind on anything, ever. On the contrary, the financial sector very badly needs to be mercilessly bludgeoned into about half its current size — it collected a record $56 billion in profits in the first quarter of 2018, while wages remain basically stagnant. The latter is to a great extent caused by the former.
Probably the single key person allowing this bill to get through is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Harry Reid kept similar bills bottled up for years in that position, as one of his former aides recently noted. The reason Reid did so presumably had much to do with anger at Wall Street for blowing up the economy, and resentment for the ensuing unemployment crisis wrecking Democrats' political fortunes in the 2010 midterms.
It's easily possible that the next crisis could come after Democrats win the 2020 election. But it seems Schumer regards further enriching his enormously wealthy Wall Street handlers as more important than the American working class, the American economy as a whole, or even his own party's political success.