by Douglas Rushkoff
April 16, 2009
I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why President Obama’s approach to the economic crisis upsets me so much, so regularly, and I think I figured it out.
His impulse—perhaps as someone with more faith in the power of centralized, top-down decision-making than I have—is to fix our economic problems by supporting existing institutions. In the president’s view, the best approach now is to pump some necessary short-term assets into flagging institutions to help them make it through the rough patches in the economic road, and then get them to pay it back to the government once times are better. That’s the approach he’s taken to the banks, the automotive industry, and even the insurance industry.
What the Obama Administration doesn’t seem to understand is that the institutions they are attempting to prop up are the very ones whose solvency depends on the continuing extraction of wealth and value from the real people and places making up America.
Take the ongoing bailout of AIG. The American International Group is a big hedge fund masquerading as an insurance company, of sorts. Their fourth quarter loss last year of $61.7 billion was the largest loss by any company, ever. The core business of AIG, and the reason the government feels it is crucial to keep them afloat at taxpayer expense, is insuring corporations against lawsuits. Were AIG to go out of business, big enterprises like offshore oil rigs, amusement parks, and pharmaceutical firms might temporarily lose their insurance coverage.
What does that really mean? It means that larger corporations would lose a certain amount of their unfair leverage over smaller concerns. The handmade toy industry, for example, made up of thousands of individual craftspeople and cottage businesses, has been devastated by the Chinese lead paint debacle. It’s not that the domestic handmade toy industry has anything to do with corporate outsourcing to China. In fact, they represent the alternative to conglomerate-licensed, mass-produced, and outsourced toy manufacturing.
But the government, in its infinite wisdom and unflagging bias towards central control, saw the lead paint episodes as a call for regulating agencies to create industry standards that only larger corporations could meet. The tiniest toy producers with no history of lead contamination in their handcrafted products must attain costly approval from testing laboratories in order to sell their goods. The cost is prohibitive unless the manufacturer is producing very high quantities of toys—quantities on the scale that Mattel makes, not Joe the woodcarver.
Likewise, AIG insures big companies so that they no longer have to worry so much about the human damage their products and practices inflict. The institution itself provides conglomerates with the instruments they need to maintain their monopolies over industries. Of course, AIG went ahead and invested their corporate clients’ fees in really stupid, high-risk paper. And then they borrowed a bunch of money and invested it, too, in really stupid high-risk paper, in ways that could justifiably be called illegal. As a result of these bad decisions, they ended up owing much, much more money than they had, and became utterly insolvent. So then, ostensibly to protect the big companies depending on AIG for their insurance policies, the government came in and bailed them out. Repeatedly.
Then, when a Senate committee finally starts asking questions about all this, we all focus on little inconsistencies: like a few hundred million dollars in bonuses paid to the very brokers who made the decisions of questionable legality that put AIG in its financial mess in the first place, the executives testify about the life-threatening emails his employees are receiving. This circumvents all discussion about AIG’s real place in the economic fabric of corporatism. The truth is that lion’s share of AIG’s bailout funds—close to $200 billion of public money—went straight to European investment banks and other financial institutions. $12.9 billion directly to Goldman Sachs, in fact, a firm that claims an AIG failure would not have had a major impact on their own profitability. So why should taxpayers fork over $12.9 billion to them for still unspecified reasons?
The bonuses themselves were absolutely a red herring, and accounted for a tiny fraction of the American public’s recent contribution to the company. (So are the life insurance policies the company underwrote.) It’s not just that you and me and our children and grandchildren will be paying for these criminals’ bonuses for our entire lives; it’s that our futures are being spent to keep in place the companies that are institutionally biased towards preventing us from living productively in a safe and clean world.
And all of this is occurring because of a government bias towards central administration of economic affairs, and unexamined allegiance to larger corporate players.
The GM bailout, for example, has almost nothing to do with saving a Detroit motor company, and everything to do with saving the Treasury. The government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is obligated to guarantee the pensions of GM employees and former employees if the company goes bankrupt. As of December 31, according to its 10-K report (as best I can understand it as a layperson) the plans had $84.5 billion in assets and $98.1 billion in liabilities. This means $14 billion unaccounted for. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp has never had to come up with anything close to that much cash. The largest bailout in their history was about $7.5 billion for United Airlines employees when that company went bankrupt.
But how many tens of billions is the Obama administration willing to pour into General Motors to avoid the 14 billion dollars it would have to raise for guaranteed employee pensions? And if the company were liquidated sooner rather than later, wouldn’t there be more assets to apply to these expenses (and repay bondholders who put up the money for employee health benefits)?
What if the billions were spent promoting the research and development of leaner, more innovative companies already working on transportation alternatives? Or, to be even more direct, how about looking at the way government subsidies converted public space (our streets) into conduits for private vehicles (automobiles) at the expense of mass transit (streetcars) in order to create demand for these highly inefficient vehicles, anyway. When does it become too costly to build an entire society around a machine that doesn’t really work?
Indeed, it would be much cheaper to simply build towns and supply chains less dependent on automobile travel, stop penalizing companies capable of innovating effectively, and repair laws on the books so they aren’t so biased in favor of gigantic corporate players. Almost no one questions the need for government spending as economic stimulus. But as long as we’re doing it, why not invest in people, rather than the oversized, over-centralized firms for whom people are just another resource to be exploited?
For a whole lot less cash investment, Mr. Obama could be sowing the seeds of a new economy, one that functions independently of government subsidy and one that creates jobs and opportunity for the bottom up.
To do so, however would require him to have as much faith in the industrious, collaborative spirit of Americans to rebuild America as he did in our ability to get him into office.
Longtime Arthur columnist Douglas Rushkoff has just finished his life’s work, “Life Inc: How the world became a corporation and how to take it back,” to be published June 2, 2009 by Random House. (Pre-order info: Amazon). His talk radio show, Media Squat Radio, broadcasts Mondays 7-8pm EDT on WFMU. Streams and archived shows at www.wfmu.org and iTunes.
think you’re on to something but you’re not quite there. your proposed policies are in contradiction.
“Indeed, it would be much cheaper to simply build towns and supply chains less dependent on automobile travel, stop penalizing companies capable of innovating effectively, and repair laws on the books so they aren’t so biased in favor of gigantic corporate players. Almost no one questions the need for government spending as economic stimulus. But as long as we’re doing it, why not invest in people, rather than the oversized, over-centralized firms for whom people are just another resource to be exploited? ”
“stop penalizing companies capable of innovating effectively” is incompatible with “no one questions the need for government spending as economic stimulus”.
an economic stimulus is a penalty on those capable of innovating effectively. what you are suggesting is that, to enable effective innovators, we (Obama, etc.) should steal from the effective innovators and give the money to our friends (mass transit construction, etc.). it is still impossible to get five from a pair of twos. and a bureaucratic award to company xyz is also a penalty to other effective innovators.
“why not invest in people, rather than the oversized, over-centralized firms for whom people are just another resource to be exploited”? ummmm…do you know what kind of governmental overhead is required to “oversee” the distribution of all this “stimulus”? if you put $1 into the black box known as the federal government, do you know how much comes out the other side? it is not and is not close to $1. what is a more prime example of something “oversized” and “over-centralized”? do we really want to circulate more money through (invest in) this black box?
“Almost no one questions the need for government spending as economic stimulus”? really?
To A Minority – paying a company (even General Motors) to make a streetcar, to design a transit station, to lay down track (or magnets) is quite different from giving money to a company so that it continues to exist. The more decentralized and corruption free this process can be made, the better, but it’s still a different approach.
I think you’re missing the global perspective. The game being played right now is that China is effectively making most things we buy and then lending us the money for us to buy it. But come on, you don’r really think there is any intention to ever pay it back, do you? The Federal Reserve is printing money in unprecedented amounts. All of this stimulus and bailouts and other programs are just ways of injecting this currency into our economy so we can inflate our debts away. The trick is to print enough to inflate away our debts without freaking out the Chinese and other foreign TBond holders into moving their foreign reserves into other currencies. The USA’s creditors have to believe that this wealth is going to be taxed out of the economy and there needs to be quite a bit of growth to service the compounding interest on the national debt. So all this inflationary activity is being whored up to look like it’s going to kick-start the economy. But the chinese don’t understand economics any better than Americans do and so long as everyone believes the big lie, all is well in the world. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Thank you.
giving money for existence versus giving money for a train is different, you are correct. however, the source of the money is the same.
what determines an effective innovator? the government? can effective innovators be legislated into existence?
Is President Obama reading these articles? Can someone get him a copy of this? An intern or something?
I have an extremly novice view of this,
I just see it as all the banks as 1 BANK and they re using the term ‘Bailout’ instead of using ‘Taking’ the money of the public to give all the money possible to the morgan/rothschild families. They are using ‘a drip system’ that will add up to everything, instead of them taking it in a massive clump and causing immediate civil war, this way it just passifies the public a touch, although its uproar is inevitable.
Eventually, they will use all of this money and trade it for a new currency/system that they will be completly in control of(they are sucking the dollar dry at the moment)….and then unless we create an alternative way of life, we will be sucked into their new system.
It honestly has nothing to do with Obama, in my opinion.
Aside…Precursor to Martial Law?
lot of money during ‘cuts’!
I reply to Adam’s comment:
Alex Jones is a fear mongering liar.