In his 2006 HBO special “Life is Worth Losing,” George Carlin presciently noted: “They call it the American dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
With stunning tact and foresight, Carlin predicted much of what is happening today, including “increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming your Social Security money, they want your (fucking) retirement money. They want it back, so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street, and you know what? They’ll get it from you, they’ll get it all from you sooner or later, because they own this (fucking) place. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it.”
He’s right. So are the Occupy activists who point to the extreme economic polarization in this country. We are now faced with the reality that 1% percent of our nation controls about 43% of our wealth, our taxpayer dollars bailed out corrupt financial institutions that engaged in reckless behavior which resulted in millions of Americans losing their homes, and now, the reality that politicians are seriously considering cutting programs such as Social Security and Medicare as a solution to the budget problem.
There have been many steps that have led us to this current predicament – and our elected officials are hugely to blame for expediting the process. Because politicians have become no more than actors employed by special interests, the “big club” has had the political assistance required to deregulate the economy and pave the way for their pseudo-monopolies and tax-dodging cartels.
A few key repeals include the Glass-Steagall Act, which contained provisions that segregated commercial banks and investment banks; relaxing the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed trusts; the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which augmented the Sherman Antitrust Act and made room for unions; and the Robinson-Patman Act, which outlawed price discrimination (but exempted cooperative associations).
To point to a significant example, the Glass-Steagall Act is what would have prohibited Citicorp, a commercial bank, from merging with Traveler’s Group, an insurance company, to form Citigroup in 1998, a conglomerate vastly involved in the current mortgage crisis. The Federal Reserve gave Citigroup a temporary waiver that year, while their political stooges were working on the next piece of legislation: the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999, which allowed security firms, investment banks and commercial banks to merge. The bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
This was the same President that signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which deregulated OTC derivatives and credit default swaps, paving the way for the investment banks, now consolidated with commercial/consumer banks, to tie their sub-prime mortgages into the derivatives without government oversight or regulation and sell them on our casino-capitalist market.
Let us not forget who the Treasury Secretary was under the Clinton administration: Robert Rubin, an employee of Goldman Sachs for 26 years, and who served as a member of the board as well as the co-chairman from 1990 to 1992.
After he left the Clinton administration, Rubin continued to serve on the board of directors of many entities such as the New York Stock Exchange, the Harvard Corporation, the Ford Motor Company, the Council on Foreign Relations and, most importantly, his own brainchild: Citigroup. During his tenure at Citigroup, Rubin made an estimated $126 million in stock options and cash. It was also under his watch that the federal government injected about $45 billion into the company.
Speaking of TARP, who was leading the rallying cry for the bailouts? Then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs. The TARP bailout was a perfect illustration of how our tax dollars don’t go towards improving infrastructure and eradicating poverty, but to propping up corrupt financial institutions, formed through deregulation, to continue their criminal activity.
Deregulation has led to a strip mall in every rural town, a Walgreen’s on every corner, a McDonald’s at every stoplight, a Starbucks on every block, a Wal-Mart on every three-acre plot, and a Home Depot on an area that used to include many family hardware stores.
You name the industry – retail, telecommunication, Internet, food, home repair, goods and services – and increasingly only a few companies are controlling and dominating them. There used to be family-owned stores, flower shops, pharmacies and hardware stores. Now the road is paved only for those on the inside: the big club.
To be part of the “big club” is also to be absolved of any criminal activity. When faced with a conviction or accusation that would warrant a criminal prosecution for the everyday citizen, those in the “big club” get off with a fine amounting to a few weeks or months of profit, paid to a government that in exchange lets the criminals go free.
This is illustrated with the recent finding that HSBC Bank laundered and processed about a billion dollars of drug money of some of the most notorious and dangerous drug cartels in Mexico. They paid a good amount as retribution, $1.9 billion, but not a single individual was criminally indicted or convicted for their activity.
With alarming boldness, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer declared that “despite HSBC’s ‘blatant failure’ to implement anti-money laundering controls and its willful flouting of U.S. sanctions, the consequences of a criminal prosecution would have been dire. Had the U.S. authorities decided to press criminal charges, HSBC would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the U.S., the future of the institution would have been under threat and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.”
The federal investigation even revealed that “senior bank officials were complicit in the illegal activity.” You know you’re in the big club when the sanctity and ubiquity of your institution will never be sacrificed by thorough, blatant and disgraceful criminal activity.
Goldman Sachs, when faced with trial, paid a petty $550 million fine for misleading investors with sub-prime mortgage products, and thus avoided criminal prosecution. MF Global, an institution that lost about $1.6 billion of consumer money, got off with no criminal prosecution or indictment. JP Morgan, which lost billions of dollars in trading, was let off with no criminal indictment or prosecution. British Petroleum was charged with manslaughter for their negligence regarding the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but no one was sent to jail for the incident. The list goes on: no time for the white-shoe boys – even if you’re found, like HSBC, having violated the Trading with the Enemy Act.
The situation has become so neurotic that a group of CEOs, posing as rational and well-intended people, have formed a political campaign known as Fix the Debt comprised of the wealthiest and most powerful CEOs on the planet. On their list of solutions, you’d expect to find perhaps a mirror or a magnifying glass to more closely examine their tax returns. No such luck: the only thing on their list is our retirement money and our future health care money that we pay into.
So, at a time in history when these institutions have gotten away with so much already, we as citizens must decide if we are going to accept the lie that “entitlement programs,” as they’re referred to, are actually posing the gravest threat to our massive $16 trillion debt. With middle-class incomes collapsing and jobs coming with less and less decent wages and benefits, we must not let our politicians sacrifice the programs that were built to help us.