Glenn Greenwald: The Virtues of Public Anger

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Richard Moore

Mar 24, 2009, 8:05:42 AM3/24/09

The Virtues of Public Anger and the Need for More

by Glenn Greenwald

With lightning speed and lockstep unanimity, opinion-making elites jointly embraced and are now delivering the same message about the public rage triggered this week by the AIG bonus scandal:   This scandal is insignificant.  It's just adistraction.  And, most important of all, public anger is unhelpful and must be contained or, failing that, ignored.

This anti-anger consensus among our political elites is exactly wrong.  The public rage we're finally seeing is long, long overdue, and appears to be the only force with both the ability and will to impose meaningful checks on continued kleptocratic pillaging and deep-seated corruption in virtually every branch of our establishment institutions.  The worst possible thing that could happen now is for this collective rage to subside and for the public to return to its long-standing state of blissful ignorance over what the establishment is actually doing.

It makes perfect sense that those who are satisfied with the prevailing order -- because it rewards them in numerous ways -- are desperate to pacify public fury.  Thus we find unanimous decrees that public calm (i.e., quiet) be restored.  It's a universal dynamic that elites want to keep the masses in a state of silent, disengaged submission, all the better if the masses stay convinced that the elites have their best interests at heart and their welfare is therefore advanced by allowing elites -- the Experts -- to work in peace on our pressing problems, undisrupted and "undistracted" by the need to placate primitive public sentiments.

While that framework is arguably reasonable where the establishment class is competent, honest, and restrained, what we have had -- and have -- is exactly the opposite:  a political class and financial elite that is rotted to the core and running amok.  We've had far too little public rage given the magnitude of this rot, not an excess of rage.  What has been missing more than anything else is this:  fear on the part of the political and financial class of the public which they have been systematically defrauding and destroying.

* * * * *

These endless lectures from sober, rational pundits about the relative quantitative insignificance of the AIG bonuses are condescending straw men.  Nobody thinks that $165 million in bonuses for the people who destroyed AIG is what has caused the financial crisis.  Nobody thinks that recouping those bonuses or having prevented them in the first place would solve or even mitigate systemic collapse.  The amounts are miniscule in the context of the broader economic issues.  Everyone is aware of that; nobody needs to have that pointed out.  As Armando astutely observed, the attempt now to dismiss the anger over the AIG bonuses as the by-product of simple-minded ignorance and/or ideological rigidity (class warfare!  crass populism!) is quite similar to how anti-war arguments were stigmatized before the attack on Iraq :   ignore the screeching pacifists and let the sober Experts make the decisions, for they know best.

The AIG scandal is significant and has resonated so powerfully because it is a microscope that enables the public to see what and who has wreaked the destruction that threatens their security and future and, most important of all, to realize that these practices haven't ended and the perpetrators haven't been punished.  The opposite is true:  those who caused the crisis continue to exert control over what happens and continue to have huge amounts of public money transferred in order to enrich them.

Eliot Spitzer is absolutely right that, even at AIG, there are far larger scandals than the bonuses, such as the undiscounted compensation of AIG's counter-parties such as Goldman Sachs (and just by the way:  it is indescribably symbolic that Spitzer has been punished and disgraced for his acts of consensual adult sex while the targets of his prescient Wall St. investigations, who basically destroyed the world economy, remain protected and empowered). But the bonus scandal is illustrative of why the crisis happened, who caused it to happen, and the ongoing political dominance of the perpetrators.  It is, as Robert Reich put it, "a nightmarish metaphor for the Obama Administration's problems administering the bailout of Wall Street."

The financial crisis has merely unmasked the corruption and rot in our establishment institutions that are staggering in magnitude and reach.  Just as the Iraq War was not the by-product of wrongdoing by a few stray bad political and media actors but instead was reflective of our broken institutions generally, the financial crisis is a fundamental indictment on the way the country functions and of its ruling class.  What would be unhealthy is if there weren't substantial amounts of public rage in the face of these revelations. 

* * * * *

Matt Taibbi's new Rolling Stone article perfectly summarizes what the AIG scandal reveals about our political and economic system, and should be read in full.  In sum:  financial elites own the Government and both political parties.  Their money drowns Washington and their lobbyists control it.   They used that ownership of Government to abolish decades-old legal and regulatory protections which previously constrained what they could do.  In the lawless environment which they literally purchased from our political leaders, they were able to pillage and pilfer and steal without limit.  And even now that everything has come crashing down, they continue to dictate what the Government's response is, to ensure that they -- the prime authors of the disaster -- are the prime beneficiaries, at the public's expense, of the "solutions," solutions which preserve their ill-gotten gains and heighten even further their power and influence.  Taibbi:

The real question from here is whether the Obama administration is going to move to bring the financial system back to a place where sanity is restored and the general public can have a say in things or whether the new financial bureaucracy will remain obscure, secretive and hopelessly complex. It might not bode well that Geithner, Obama's Treasury secretary, is one of the architects of the Paulson bailouts; as chief of the New York Fed, he helped orchestrate the Goldman-friendly AIG bailout and the secretive Maiden Lane facilities used to funnel funds to the dying company. Neither did it look good when Geithner - himself a protégé of notorious Goldman alum John Thain, the Merrill Lynch chief who paid out billions in bonuses after the state spent billions bailing out his firm - picked a former Goldman lobbyist named Mark Patterson to be his top aide.

In fact, most of Geithner's early moves reek strongly of Paulsonism.  He has continually talked about partnering with private investors to create a so-called "bad bank" that would systemically relieve private lenders of bad assets - the kind of massive, opaque, quasi-private bureaucratic nightmare that Paulson specialized in. Geithner even refloated a Paulson proposal to use TALF, one of the Fed's new facilities, to essentially lend cheap money to hedge funds to invest in troubled banks while practically guaranteeing them enormous profits.

God knows exactly what this does for the taxpayer, but hedge-fund managers sure love the idea. "This is exactly what the financial system needs," said Andrew Feldstein, CEO of Blue Mountain Capital and one of the Morgan Mafia. Strangely, there aren't many people who don't run hedge funds who have expressed anything like that kind of enthusiasm for Geithner's ideas.

As complex as all the finances are, the politics aren't hard to follow. By creating an urgent crisis that can only be solved by those fluent in a language too complex for ordinary people to understand, the Wall Street crowd has turned the vast majority of Americans into non-participants in their own political future. There is a reason it used to be a crime in the Confederate states to teach a slave to read: Literacy is power. In the age of the CDS and CDO, most of us are financial illiterates. By making an already too-complex economy even more complex, Wall Street has used the crisis to effect a historic, revolutionary change in our political system -transforming a democracy into a two-tiered state, one with plugged-in financial bureaucrats above and clueless customers below.

The most galling thing about this financial crisis is that so many Wall Street types think they actually deserve not only their huge bonuses and lavish lifestyles but the awesome political power their own mistakes have left them in possession of. . .

Actually, come to think of it, why are we even giving taxpayer money to you people? Why are we not throwing your ass in jail instead?

But before you even finish saying that, they're rolling their eyes, because You Don't Get It. These people were never about anything except turning money into money, in order to get more money; valueswise they're on par with crack addicts, or obsessive sexual deviants who burgle homes to steal panties. Yet these are the people in whose hands our entire political future now rests.

The story of Goldman Sachs -- its tentacles entrenched in every aspect of the Government and the blindingly favorable treatment it therefore continues to receive -- demonstrates, just standing alone, how pervasive the oligarchical decay is.

Atrios has been writing a version of the same key observation virtually every day for weeks -- that almost every plan to "solve" the financial crisis involves nothing more than transfers of enormous amounts of public money into the pockets of the same unchanged system and the same people who caused the collapse in the first place:

The issue is that [Geithner] and friends never distinguished between bailing out the system and bailing out the players. There was a way to do that, and they didn't do it.

In condemning Geithner's "bank rescue" plan, Paul Krugman notes that -- yet again -- it enables great benefits for the richest investors, with the public protecting them from the risk of losses (privatize gains; socialize losses), and concludes: "The Obama administration is now completely wedded to the idea that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the financial system."   When it comes to its primary challenge, the administration elected on a platform of "change" is, above all else, viciously devoted to preservation of the status quo.  Read John Cole's summary of expert reaction to Geithner's banking plan.

That is why the AIG scandal, rightfully so, is producing so much public outrage -- because it demonstrates what the political and economic system really is, a system which the Government continues to prop up and embrace.  Brian Beutler put it this way:

It's not that the success of the bailout depends on what happens to these $160 million, but that these $160 million strongly suggest that some very rich, and, perhaps, very bad men have leveraged their way into control of the whole bailout process and the government's now following their lead. And their incentives are, to say the least, not in line with the best interests of the vast majority of taxpayers. . . .

It's simply not the case that Geithner and other high-level economic officials were so concerned with the bigger picture that they outsourced the question of compensation to Congress entirely. On the contrary, they were extremely involved in resolving that very question. They were opposed to strict compensation limits. . . .

But clearly they also thought that letting executives take home big fat piles of government money was either a matter of expedience or a matter of necessity. And either way it has huge implications for the success or failure of one of the most expensive and urgent government programs in the country's history.

The AIG scandal vividly reveals how corrupt and self-interested are the people who are still exerting primary control over this process, which is why our establishment class is so eager to demand that everyone look away.  For months, Americans have been told that they must sacrifice and trust the Government to engage in extraordinary actions if they want to stave off another Great Depression, only to watch as hundreds of billions of dollars fly to the very people who are the prime culprits.  As Jane Hamsher put it:  "The 'populist rage' that the pundits find so unseemly is actually the appropriate response."

* * * * *

We saw this week the benefits which unbridled and intimidating public rage can produce.  The retroactive, confiscatory tax on bonuses imposed by the House is, to be sure, a crude and troubling (and arguably unconstitutional) response.  But the virtues of that episode easily exceed its vices:   Congress sought to seize those bonuses because, for once, they were afraid of simmering public fury and responded to it rather than to the dictates of the corporate and lobbyist class that owns them and which they serve.  Whatever marginal "unfairness" that tax might produce pales by many, many magnitudes when set aside the decade-long (and ongoing) pillaging of America's financial security and the future of its middle class by the financial owners of our political system.

And that's the point:  only this true, intense, and -- yes -- scary public rage can serve as a check on ongoing pilfering by the narrowed monied factions who control our Government for their own interests and who otherwise have no reason to stop.  Who else is going to impose those checks?  The bought-and-paid-for, incomparably subservient, impotent and inept Congress?  The establishment-loyal, vapid political press?   An executive branch run by the very people who are most vested in, dependent on, and loyal to the financial system that produced these disasters?  Only a healthy fear of the populace -- exactly what has been missing -- can achieve that.

Obviously, mass rage can entail its own excesses and, and if unchecked, can lead to mob rule, a form of majoritarian tyranny (as Armando notes, its isolated, unrepresentative excesses (death threats!) are already being exaggerated to discredit the underlying anger itself).  But we are far, far, far away from the point where unchecked public sentiment plays too great of a role in how our political institutions function.  Rather:  we're a country that, for the last decade, acquiesced meekly and quietly as our Government transferred huge amounts of national wealth to a tiny elite; launched a devastating war based on purely false pretenses; tortured, spied on us and literally claimed the right to invalidate law and the Constitution; and turned itself over to the highest bidders. 

The overarching question is not:  why is there so much public rage?  The overarching question is:  why has there been so little?  A political establishment that can function without any fear of the citizenry will inevitably trample on its interests.  That is what has been happening more than anything else.  And it is why we need far more public outrage, and fear of that outrage more deeply implanted in the minds of our political and financial elites.

© 2009

Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book "How Would a Patriot Act?," a critique of the Bush administration's use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, "A Tragic Legacy", examines the Bush legacy.

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