There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.
— Mahatma Gandhi
I finished a real “page turner” of a non-fiction book yesterday, The Billion Dollar Whale. It dissects the misdeeds of fugitive financier, thief and con man Jho Low, a 35-year-old Malaysian who stole billions of dollars over 10 years through sophisticated international financial fraud. Because of the lifestyle Low adopted, it’s sensational reading. The authors, Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, both Wall Street Journal reporters, covered the story in real time as it unfolded. My only caveat: The detailed analysis of how he kept the billions flowing into his accounts can be a bit difficult to plow through.
As I read the book, though, I felt a sense of unease, almost depression. I read how international captains of the universe (investment bankers, hedge funders, oil sheiks, and international banking executives) facilitated the giant theft of Malaysia’s wealth to the detriment of the country’s citizens. And it was all due to greed. Yes, I do believe it was that simple.
Goldman Sachs played the most prominent role in the looting but was by no means alone. The names Lloyd Blankfein and Gary Cohn, top dogs at Goldman at the time, appear often in the book. (Cohn, remember, was President Trump’s chief economic advisor for about a year.) They were so tantalized by the prospect of making quick $100 million profits for their firm’s wealthy partners that they turned a blind eye to the shadiness of the deals they bankrolled.
These two billionaires were so eager to make ever more money that they risked their reputations doing shady deals with shady people and using shady accounting in Asia and elsewhere. Yet their plunder of Malaysia left nary a scratch on either their reputations or wallets. They are just as fawned upon and kowtowed to now as ever. Cohn, in fact, may have gained in stature because of his departure from the Trump administration. So they actually risked nothing, and probably figured they wouldn’t from the start.
Why were they so cocky? Probably because our country is in the clutches of the super-rich, who take care of their own. Cohn and Blankfein, like all those companies rescued by the federal government during the Great Recession, are seen as too rich and powerful to fail. And no one seems surprised.
That is why I found The Billion Dollar Whale deeply disturbing. It reminded me once again of the current state of our oligarchy — awash in greed and impunity. The more successful you are in your greed, the more you can operate with impunity.
So what does all of this have to do with 2020 and my choice for the Democratic presidential nominee? A fair question; here’s my answer: My choice for our Democratic presidential nominee (henceforth, DPN) must understand, both in her/his gut and intellectually, that our financial institutions miserably fail the public because they are animated by greed. Each DPN must understand the difference between letting banks exploit their power to enrich only themselves versus properly enforced banking regulations that lend transparency and stability to the economy.
The best example of fatcats exploiting the system to enrich themselves produced the Great Recession starting in 2008. Avaricious mega-bankers used the housing bubble to make absurdly huge profits, then faced collapse when the bubble burst, then got bailed out by Washington, i.e, you and me. The great villain of that time was Goldman Sachs, but it had plenty of company — JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, etc. — all right there together in the mosh pit.
And don’t forget that their greed not only torpedoed the economy, they also got off scot free and were allowed to keep the money they made. And to anyone who would counter that some banks paid fines: Yes, some banks did. But those banks could easily afford the fines, which came out of company accounts, not from the pockets of the multi-millionaire and billionaire bank executives enriched by the shenanigans that brought the economy down. Many books have documented this history. Among the best are The Big Short, All the Devils are Here, After the Music Stopped, and Too Big to Fail.
Recently the Trump Administration appointed a diminutive but scrappy pit bull from South Carolina named Mick Mulvaney to head the agency created to curb excesses that caused 2008 — the Consumer Financial Protection Board. Trump tasked Mulvaney with dismantling the agency, removing the very protections put in place after the Great Recession. Mulvaney is now acting chief of staff to Trump. The foxes are firmly in control of the hen house.
Circling back to the 2020 presidential election and the roughly two dozen DPN wannabes: To win my support, each must first demonstrate that she/he understands that wanton misbehavior by big banks paves the way for massive fraud resulting in economic disasters like the 2008 crash and Jho Low’s pillage of Malaysia. Next, the DPN hopeful must make banking reform a campaign centerpiece, using every opportunity to hammer the point home that tougher banking regulation is non-negotiable, and that from Day One in the Oval Office she/he will hector Congress to enact meaningful legislation to curb abuses. It doesn’t help to understand the need if you can’t also win over voters.
A lot to demand, you say? Not for a smart, articulate, energetic politician with a spine reinforced with strong moral fiber. My DPN choice will need all those attributes and more because powerful bankers and lobbyists will work hard to turn the message into a call for “socialism.” My DPNs messaging needs to be clear, intelligent and emphatic so normal voters reject bogus talk of socialism from the right.
If these were my only demands of a 2020 DPN, I’d already have a clear frontrunner: Elizabeth Warren. But this is merely my first manifesto on the subject; I have a year and a half to settle on my final pick. Like Warren, though, I felt compelled to lay down a marker early. The Billion Dollar Whale whipped up sufficient indignation to send me to my laptop and share my thoughts (in just shy of a billion words) with you.
N.B. In case you wondered………….the featured image for this post is a painting of Diogenes searching for an honest man. Unlike Diogenes who was a cynic, I am hopeful of finding such a person among the many potential Democratic presidential candidates.