Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Robert Reich’s latest book, The System, presents his analysis of how our democracy is more like an oligarchy these days, how it got that way, and how to fix it. Oligarchy “refers to a government of and by a few exceedingly rich people or families who … have power … . Oligarchs may try to hide their power … . But no one should be fooled. Oligarchs wield power for their own benefit.” (pages 13-14) [1]

Reich identifies three major systemic changes that have occurred since 1980 that have shifted power, both economic and political, to a small group of very wealthy Americans. They are:

  • The shift of big corporations from stakeholder to shareholder capitalism (see this previous post for a summary of this shift),
  • The shift in bargaining power from unions to large employers and corporations (see this previous post for a summary of this shift), and
  • The shift in power in our economy and politics to the financial sector and Wall Street (see below).

The dramatic increase in power and influence of the financial sector and Wall Street began in the 1980s. It included two components:

  • The increased size and marketplace power of large financial corporations, and
  • The increased influence of these large financial corporations in our economy and politics.

The increased size and marketplace power of financial corporations, starting with banks, began in 1980 as the federal government began deregulating banking. After the financial crash of 1929, which was a significant contributor to the Great Depression, laws were enacted to prevent banks from crashing the financial system and the economy again. Laws and regulations banned banks from operating in more than one state and prohibited mergers of banks. A law named the Glass-Steagall Act separated consumer and commercial banking (i.e., taking deposits and making loans) from investment banking (i.e., making investments that were speculative with significant risks of losses).

In 1980, the ban on interstate banking and bank mergers was repealed and banks quickly began merging. This, of course, meant that there were fewer banks and bigger banks, and eventually we got the too-big-to-fail banks of 2008. As the banks and financial corporations increased in size and wealth, they also gained political power through campaign spending, lobbying, and the revolving door. The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act under President Clinton in 1999 alone was the subject of $300 million of lobbying by the big financial corporations. Clinton’s Treasury Secretary from 1995 – 1999, by the way, was Robert Rubin, a former senior executive at Wall St. powerhouse Goldman Sachs, who returned to Wall St. at Citicorp in 1999.

Starting in the mid-1980s, federal regulators began easing the restrictions separating consumer and commercial banking (where customers’ deposits were insured by the federal government) from investment banking. The favorable policies and deregulation the financial sector was able to get led to the Savings and Loan crash of the late 1980s that cost taxpayers billions. The bursting of the dot.com stock market bubble and the collapse of various hedge funds were just bumps on the road to the huge financial collapse of 2008 which caused the Great Recession and cost homeowners trillions of dollars and taxpayers trillions more to rescue the too-big-to-fail financial institutions.

Between 1980 and 2008, $6.6 trillion in wealth was captured by the big financial corporations, sucked out of consumers and others, as the U.S. economy shifted from a focus on making things (i.e., manufacturing) to creating new, speculative financial instruments and from product entrepreneurship to financial entrepreneurship and vulture capitalism.

The big financial corporations’ control of our economy and politics was so profound that they, with an assist from their banker friends at the Federal Reserve, could tell President Clinton that he had to balance the federal budget and could not spend money on programs to benefit the American people as he had promised during his campaign. Today, the financial sector represents over 8% of our economy, while in the 1950s it was just 2.5% of the economy.

The big financial corporations made money funding corporate raiders and vulture capitalists. They made money aiding and abetting multi-national corporations as they moved jobs and facilities overseas, undermining U.S. workers. They made money providing debt to consumers on credit cards, student loans, and mortgages, while often not so secretly hoping that borrowers would fall behind on payments so they could collect big fees and escalated interest rates. Along the way, the financial corporations got bankruptcy laws written so that consumers could not escape mortgage or student debt in bankruptcy and had limited ability to reduce credit card debt. (Meanwhile, corporations can eliminate all debt and break contracts, including union contracts and retiree benefit contracts, when they file for bankruptcy and can be back on their feet in literally no time.)

The big financial corporations fueled the dramatic rise in home values – the average home cost $64,600 in 1980 and $246,500 in 2006 – by handing out more and more mortgages on more and more risk terms. They knew that the default rate on these riskier mortgages would be higher and, in some cases, very high because they made some of these loans using fraudulent lending practices. Nonetheless, they continued to sell securities backed by these mortgages as low risk investments.

In 2008, when homeowners started to default on their risky and sometimes fraudulent loans, the whole financial system built around these mortgages and securities based on them collapsed. This caused a collapse in home prices, causing many more homeowners to default on their mortgages. Millions of homeowners lost their homes and, as a result in many cases, lost all their savings – to the tune of trillions of dollars.

The federal government and we, the taxpayers, bailed out the too-big-to-fail financial institutions to the tune of trillions of dollars. For example, the financial giant Citigroup (parent of Citicorp and Citibank) received $45 billion in cash and a guarantee against any loss in value for an additional $300 billion of speculative investments.

The shift of wealth to the big financial corporations and their executives and traders (i.e., their high stakes gamblers using speculative financial instruments) has exacerbated economic inequality in America. For example, the typical bonus paid on Wall Street in 2020 was $184,000 and the total bonus pool was $31.7 billion for the roughly 170,000 people receiving bonuses. [2]

Huge and wealthy companies, as well as their extremely wealthy executives and shareholders, are a threat to workers, our economy, and our democracy. Policies that were put in place as part of the New Deal in the 1930s maintained a balance in our economy, including a reasonable level of economic inequality, and protected our democracy from oligarchy. Since 1980, these policies have been changed, economic and political power has shifted, and we are suffering for it. We need to reinstitute policies similar to those of the New Deal to preserve our democratic principles of equal opportunity and promotion of the general welfare.

The bottom line of Reich’s book is that, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1916-1939) said, “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Similarly, H.D. Lloyd, in his 1894 book, Wealth against Commonwealth, wrote, “Liberty produces wealth, and wealth destroys liberty.”

I urge you to read Reich’s book and/or check out his writing and videos at https://robertreich.org/ and/or https://www.inequalitymedia.org/. His analysis of the current economic and political landscape is always insightful and clear, and often entertaining as well.

[1]      Reich, R.B., 2020, The System: Who rigged it, how we fix it. NY, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[2]      Surane, J., 3/26/21, “Wall Street bonuses rose 10% in 2020, N.Y. Comptroller says,” Bloomberg News (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-26/wall-street-bonuses-rose-10-last-year-n-y-comptroller-says)

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