Monday, July 28, 2014

George Packer: The Dark Side of American Democracy

Beach reading for Mad Dog, with one eye on the pelicans, was rewarding this weekend. 
It was an odd confluence, vacationing down South, among the upper 1% of the upper 1%, and hearing off hand stories about people who worked for organizations which are not Goldman Sacks or Morgan, but "non profit" corporations in healthcare, who were given going away presents by boards of directors--a million dollars a year for life
Hey, you did a great job, here's a million a year for life. Open ended. Nice retirement plan, don't you think? Of course, nobody else in the organization even has a retirement plan. But you do. Nice pat on the back. I know you'll do the same for me some day, when you sit on the board of my corporation. 

Not my money.  Corporate money. Enjoy.

In an organization with a budget north of half a billion a year, this may not seem like a break the bank proposition, but the idea that idea would even occur to anyone on the board of directors, much less be approved,  floored Mad Dog. 

What that says about the sense of entitlement of the very rich speaks volumes--and these are the very people who would be quick to speak in deprecating tones about welfare queens with a "sense of entitlement."

Against this backdrop was George Packer's odd Jackson Pollack style book--in which he splatters a bunch of stories against the wall and something more or less coherent emerges about the unraveling of the "American dream,"  whatever that is--mostly the sense that if you work hard and "play by the rules" you will prosper in this country. 

Among the people whose stories he tells are a longtime Democratic party yeoman who works for Joseph Biden off and on, who witnesses the criminal greed of big wall street operatives go unpunished, and who is disappointed in President Obama for having no appetite for going after these miscreants who would have brought the entire economy down in the process of getting their own pots of gold.  Mr. Obama is painted, likely accurately, as someone acutely aware of his own lack of economic experience, and he does not have enough of a moral compass or deep seeded confidence in his own outrage to spurn the Larry Summers, the Timothy Geithners, the Robert Rubins, the guys who in some measure got us into the mess of 2008. So Mr. Obama simply does not have the balls  to go after the men on Wall Street who should have been thrown in jail.

Or maybe Mr. Obama made the simple calculation if he went after Wall Street scions, he would be a one term President.

But really, these guys make Bernie Madoff look like a piker. 

Packer tells the tale of a Florida lawyer who uncovers the depths of the incompetence, gross negligence, unconscionable indifference of Florida judges, prosecutors and sheriffs who foreclose on people who were more innocent victim than intemperate borrower. If anyone had listened and believed this lawyer in 2006, 2007, when he was screaming his Jeremiads, the crisis might have been averted and a lot of deserving billionaires at Goldman, Lehman, Morgan and Citibank might now be in jail. 

The whole  zoo of wheelers/dealers who packaged rotten mortgage backed securities were guilty of enough malpractice to transform the word "malpractice"  into a euphemism --we would really have to invent a new phrase--"criminal negligence" does not begin to describe what these rich men did because it does not include the aspect of how these guys sold snake oil they knew was worthless and should have known would eventually be poisonous. 

Not that this is anything new in American history--Huckleberry Finn depicts snake oil salesmen--but those were small time grifters who only poisoned a townsman or two--these 21st century Wall Street hucksters poisoned the entire economy and the body politic to boot.

And still the rich pay 15% income tax while the 99% pay more than twice that.

It's a bracing read. It even has a part on Elizabeth Warren--one of the best hopes for a brighter American future.

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