What Cooked the World's Economy?

It wasn't your overdue mortgage.

To say the bailout hasn't worked so far is putting it mildly. Since the crisis broke, Washington's reaction has been chaotic, lenient to favorites, secretive, and staggeringly expensive. An estimated $7.36 trillion, more than double the total American outlay for World War II (even correcting for inflation), has been thrown at the problem, according to press reports. Along the way, banking, insurance, and car companies have been nationalized, and no one has been brought to justice.

Combined unemployment and underemployment (those who have stopped looking, and part-timers) runs at nearly 20 percent, the highest since 1945. Housing prices continue to hemorrhage-last fall's 18 percent drop could double. Holiday shopping fizzled: 160,000 stores closed last year, and 200,000 more are expected to shutter in '09. Some forecasts place eventual retail darkness at 25 percent. In 2008, the Dow dropped further-34 percent-than at any time since 1931. There is no sound sector in the economy; the only members of the 30 Dow Jones Industrials posting gains last year were Wal-Mart and McDonald's.

Does Obama's choice for Attorney General, Eric Holder, have the tenacity and will to tackle the widest fraud in American history? Parts of his background don't necessarily augur well: He worked on a pardon for Marc Rich, the fugitive billionaire tax evader once on the FBI's Most Wanted List whom Clinton cleared. After leaving the Clinton era's Justice Department, Holder went to work for Covington & Burling, a D.C. firm that represents corporate heavies including Big Tobacco. He defended Chiquita Brands in a notorious case, in which it paid a $25 million fine for using terrorists in Columbia as security. Holder fits well within the gaggle of elite D.C. lawyers who move back and forth between government and defending corporate criminals. He doesn't exactly have the sort of resume that startles robber barons.

Ezra Clayton Daniels

Can Holder design and orchestrate a muscular legal response, including prosecution and stern punishment of top executives, plus aggressive clawbacks of money? There seems little question that he has the skill, so the decision on how aggressive the Justice Department will be is up to Obama.

Holder could ask for and get well-organized FBI white-collar teams. The personnel hole caused by shifts to antiterrorism would have to be more than filled to their pre-9/ll staffing if the incoming administration decides to break this criminogenic cycle rather than merely address it symbolically.

Black contends that aggressive prosecution would be good for the economy because it may help prevent cheating and fraud that inevitably cause bubbles and destroy wealth. The Sarbanes-Oxley law passed in Enron's wake, for instance, is supposed to make corporations now keep the kinds of documents necessary to assess criminality. Whether the CEOs, CFOs, and others who controlled the current frauds will do so is another matter.

"Don't count on them keeping records for long," Black warns. "It's time to get out the subpoenas."

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