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Clusterfuck Nation
by Jim Kunstler

Monday, July 27, 2009

Evil Syndicated

     By now, everyone in that fraction of the world that pays attention to something other than American Idol and their platter of TGI Friday’s loaded potato skins knows that Goldman Sachs has been caught at another racket in the stock market: front-running trades. What a clever gambit, done with the help of the markets themselves – the Nasdaq in particular – in which information on trades is held back a fraction of a second from public view, while the data is shoveled to the computers of privileged subscribers who can execute zillions of programmed micro-trades before the rest of  the herd makes a move. This allows them to vacuum up hundreds of millions of dollars by doing absolutely nothing of value.  The old-fashioned method used by brokers was called “churning,” in which stocks were bought and sold incessantly (by phone) from the portfolios of inattentive clients merely to generate commissions.  In any sensible society – i.e. a society with an instinct for self-preservation – it would be against the law and the people doing it would be sent to prison.
            I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve got to think that the actions at the Nasdaq end – shoveling the data to the privileged subscribers a fraction of a second early – is patently illegal in the first place, since the whole purpose of an exchange is to create a fair trading space. Where both parties are concerned, it should amount to a plain vanilla criminal conspiracy to commit stock trading fraud. Maybe the larger question is: since when did we become a society lacking the instinct for self-preservation – that is, a society bent on suicide?  Or maybe the question is better put to Goldman Sachs’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein.
            Since this racket was made public, there has been chatter all over the Web about how angry the American public is about Wall Street in general, and increasingly about Goldman Sachs in particular.  Nobody has summed it up better than Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, calling the company “…a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” And Taibbi’s fierce article about Goldman Sachs came out weeks before this latest outrage. As we turn the corner toward autumn, President Obama looks increasingly like a dupe, a tool, or a co-conspirator of Goldman Sachs.  If he doesn’t instruct the Justice Department to commence investigations of the company, and if he doesn’t dissociate himself from their alumni hanging around the White House, the Treasury Department, and elsewhere in the government, he’s going to become the object of an awful public wrath.  Obama has no other choice at this point except to clean house – to fire Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Tim Geithner, and all other former Goldman Sachs employees in positions of power and influence around him.
             Actually, it’s not necessary for the whole general public to be fed up with this situation.  According to the Pareto 80-20 rule, it only takes one-fifth of the public to set social actions in motion, and only one-fifth of that one-fifth to do the heavy lifting.  I think we’ve reached that point.  The sentiment is now overwhelmingly tipped against Goldman Sachs (and Wall Street generally) and the only questions are whether the President of the US ends up lumped in with them, and whether we’ll see orderly prosecutions or disorderly persecutions.  At this point, it even begins to look as though Mr. Obama is taking cover behind the health care reform debate to avoid answering for his government’s association with Goldman Sachs.
            The trouble is, if the thoughtful and trustworthy members of the “Pareto 20 percent” don’t stir themselves into action over Goldman’s behavior, then sooner or later the thoughtless and reckless will take over.  Bill Moyers hosted a fascinating report on his most recent podcast about the savagery of right-wing broadcasting and how it had led, in one instance, to the murder of a doctor who performed abortions. What bothers me is that, sooner or later, the conduct of Goldman Sachs will lead the growing ranks of the unemployed, foreclosed, disentitled, and hopeless into the hands of a savage right wing seeking mindless vengeance, for instance, against “the Jews,” (as represented by Goldman Sachs), or brown-skinned people (as embodied by a vilified president).
            Readers of this blog know I’m allergic to conspiracy theories. But surveying the scene out there, it is hard to not conclude that Goldman Sachs has become the “front-runner” of a criminal syndicate defrauding US taxpayers.  This isn’t the first time in American history that business veered into extremely antisocial behavior on the grand scale.  The last quarter of the 19th century was just as bad, with frauds, swindles, sociopathic trusts, and predatory corporations preying on people trying desperately to make an honest living.  Then, one summer day in 1901, a factory drone named Leon Czolgosz stepped up to President William McKinley in a reception line at the Buffalo World’s Fair and plugged him twice in the abdomen. (Czolgosz liked to think of himself as an “anarchist,” a then-fashionable ideology among the simmering powerless.) Eight days later, McKinley expired and Teddy Roosevelt became president – to the extreme chagrin of the Republican business establishment – “… now that damned cowboy is in the White House!” cried Republican national leader Mark Hanna of Ohio.
            He was correct to be nervous.  TR turned the corporate world upside down with reform, from dismantling monopolies to establishing the cabinet departments of Commerce and Labor, to bringing the new food industry under regulation.  This naturally leads me to wonder if or when Barack Obama will have his TR Moment, when he stands up to the large malign forces operating arrantly in the daily life of this nation.  I get volumes of email complaining about Mr. Obama.  The writers behind them seem, on the whole, crankish, cynical to an extreme, and not very trustworthy observers of the scene. But I begin to sympathize with them.
            In the meantime, the US economy gives the illusion of recovery – but to what?  Back to a “consumer” credit card shopping orgy?  Another house-buying fiesta? I don’t think so.  Households are drowning in debt.  They’re using their credit cards, if they still can, to buy staple foods.  Those are the lucky ones who still have lines of credit left.  Soon, many of these families won’t even amount to households because they won’t have a house.  There is absolutely no way we are going back to that particular bubble economy.  The only bubble left is the government debt bubble, now leading to such extravagant excess that it can only end up wrecking the government, and perhaps American society with it.  In the meantime, how much remaining wealth is Goldman Sachs and its cohorts vacuuming off the floor?
            Also meanwhile, oil is heading back to the $70 range (with the dollar shedding basis points).  That’s the oil price range where the economy begins to get wrecked all over again – that is, whatever remains of the economy.  That’s the price range where airlines go back to the intensive care unit and citizens have to max out their credit cards to buy gasoline.  We’re moving toward a very hard landing and very soon.