What is Washington to do as the financial system collapses? Clearly, stark differences in approach as well as in public policy have already emerged. Bail-out Bear Stearns and pump up the brokerage and investment business with new lines of credit. Nationalize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on the backs of the taxpayer — but let Lehman drown. Tell the financial community to save itself, after which Bank of America salutes and buys Merrill Lynch. Then, the Fed gets cold feet and decides it can’t let an institution the size of the insurance giant AIG go under as well. Washington is left staring into the abyss. The old rules no longer apply.
And that’s the point. At moments of crisis since the mid-1980s, the relationship between Washington and Wall Street has changed fundamentally, at least when compared to anything that would have been recognizable in the previous century. As a result, the road ahead is dark and unknown.
During the nineteenth century, Washington was generally happy to do favors for Wall Street financiers. Railroad tycoons, who often used those railroads as vehicles of extravagant speculation, enjoyed subsidies, tax exemptions, loans, and a whole smorgasbord of financial fringe benefits supplied by pliable Congressmen and Senators (not to mention armadas of state and local officials).
Since the political establishment was committed to laissez-faire, legerdemain by greedy bankers was immune from public scrutiny, which was also useful (for them). But when panic struck, the mighty, as well as the meek, went down with the ship. Washington felt no obligation to rush to the rescue of the reckless. The bracing, if merciless, discipline of the free market did its work and there was blood on the floor.
By early in the twentieth century, however, the savage anarchy of the financial marketplace had been at least partially domesticated under the reign of the greatest financier of them all, J.P. Morgan. Ever since the panic of 1907, the legend of Morgan’s heroics in single-handedly stopping a meltdown that threatened to become worldwide, the iron discipline he imposed on more timorous bankers, has been told and re-told each time an analogous implosion looms.
Indeed, last week’s news carried its fair share of 1907-Morgan stories, trailing in their wake an implicit wistfulness. They all asked, in effect: Where is the old boy when we need him?
Back then, with Morgan performing his role as the nation’s unofficial private central banker, Teddy Roosevelt’s administration continued to keep its distance from Wall Street, still unready to offer salvation to desperate financial oligarchs. Not normally chummy with Morgan and his crowd, Roosevelt did cheer from the sidelines as the über-banker performed his rescue operation.
As it turned out, though, the days of Washington agnosticism about Wall Street were numbered. The economy had become too complex and delicate a mechanism and, in 1907, had come far too close to meltdown — even Morgan’s efforts couldn’t prevent several years of recession — to leave financial matters entirely in the hands of the private sector.
First came the Federal Reserve. It was established in 1913 under President Woodrow Wilson as a quasi-public authority meant to regulate the country’s credit markets — albeit one heavily influenced by the viewpoints and interests of the country’s principal bankers. That worked well enough until the Great Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed and lasted until World War II. The depth of the country’s trauma in those long years vastly expanded the scope of Washington’s involvement in the financial marketplace.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal did, as a start, engage in some bail-out operations. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation, actually created by President Herbert Hoover, continued to rescue major railroads and other key businesses, while some of the New Deal’s efforts to help homeowners also rewarded real estate interests. The main emphasis, however, now switched to regulation. The Glass-Steagall Banking Act, the two laws of 1933 and 1934 regulating the stock exchange, the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other similar measures subjected the financial sector to fairly rigorous public supervision.
This lasted for at least two political generations. Wall Street, after all, had been convicted in the court of public opinion of reckless, incompetent, self-interested, even felonious behavior with consequences so devastating for the rest of the country that government was licensed to make sure it didn’t happen again.
The undoing of that New Deal regulatory regime, and its replacement, largely under Republican administrations (although Glass-Steagall was repealed on Clinton’s watch), with what some have called the "socialization of risk" has contributed in a major way to the mess we’re in today. Beginning most emphatically with the massive bail-out of the savings and loan industry in the late 1980s, Washington committed itself, at least under conditions of acute crisis, to off-loading the risks taken by major financial institutions, no matter how irrationally speculative and wasteful, onto the backs of the American taxpaying public.
Despite free market/anti-big-government rhetoric, real-life Washington has tacitly acknowledged the degree to which our national economy has become dependent on the financial sector (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate — or FIRE). It will do whatever it takes to keep it afloat.
This applies not only to particular institutions like Bear Stearns, or even to mortgage mega-firms like Fannie and Freddie, but to finance in general. When it seemed necessary, public monies were indeed funneled in the general direction of the banking/brokerage community to shore up the whole rickety structure. This allowed one burst bubble — the dot-com debacle — to be replaced by another, namely our late, lamented mortgage/collaterized-debt-obligation bonanza, just now dramatically going down the tubes.
Backstopping the present bail-out is the ever-credulous, put-upon American public with its presumably inexhaustible resources. Even while Washington was instituting the periodic "socialization" of bad debts, it was systematically abandoning the New Deal’s commitment to regulation. That, of course, was in the very period when financial markets became ever more arcane, ever less comprehensible even to their Frankenstein-ian inventors, and ever more in need of monitoring. So the "socialization of risk" was accompanied by the "privatization of reward," which now is likely to prove a truly deadly combination.
That the crisis has now reached a newly terrifying stage is suggested by Washington’s sudden willingness to depart from the new orthodoxy and let the huge investment bank, Lehman Brothers, go under. Some may see in this a steely return to a laissez-faire faith. More likely, it represents wholesale confusion on the part of Bush administration and Federal Reserve policymakers about what to do, even as all endangered businesses have come to take it for granted that Washington will toss them a life-preserver when they need it.
The times call for a new departure. The next administration, which will surely enter office under the greatest economic pressure in memory, must confront reality. The financial system is out of control and has led the economy into a wildly turbulent sea of heavily leveraged speculation.
It’s time for a reversal of course. Stringent re-regulation of FIRE is not enough anymore. Washington’s mission may, at this late date, be an even greater one than Roosevelt’s New Deal faced. The government must figure out how to deploy its power to shift the flow of investment capital out of the mine-fields of speculative paper transactions and back into productive channels that will help meet the material needs of American society. Real value must be created in place of chimeras. In the meantime, we all have ringside seats — in fact, far too close to the action for comfort — as another gilded age is ending. What comes after is, in part, up to us.
Steve Fraser is working on a book about the two gilded ages. A TomDispatch regular and co-director of the American Empire Project series at Metropolitan Books, he is the author of, among other works, the recently published Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project, author of The End of Victory Culture, and editor of The World According to Tomdispatch: America in the New Age of Empire.]