There was a strange moment last week during President Obama’s speech at Cooper Union. There he was, groveling before a cast of Wall Street villains including Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein, begging them to “Look into your heart!” like John Turturro’s character in Miller’s Crossing…when out of the blue, the POTUS dropped this bombshell: “The only people who ought to fear the kind of oversight and transparency that we’re proposing are those whose conduct will fail this scrutiny.”
The Big Secret, of course, is that every living creature within a 100-mile radius of Cooper Union would fail “this scrutiny”—or that scrutiny, or any scrutiny, period. Not just in a 100-mile radius, but wherever there are still signs of economic life beating in these 50 United States, the mere whiff of scrutiny would work like nerve gas on what’s left of the economy. Because in the 21st century, fraud is as American as baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet Volts—fraud’s all we got left, Doc. Scare off the fraud with Obama’s “scrutiny,” and the entire pyramid scheme collapses in a heap of smoldering savings accounts.
That’s how an acquaintance of mine, a partner in a private equity firm, put it: “Whoever pops this fraud bubble is going to have to escape on the next flight out, faster than the Bin Laden Bunch fled Kentucky in their chartered jets after 9/11.”
And that’s why this SEC suit accusing Goldman Sachs of fraud is really just a negotiating bluff to give Obama’s people some leverage—or it’s supposed to be, anyway—according to the PE guy. He dismissed all the speculation that the fraud investigations would turn on other obvious villains like Deutsche, Merrill, Paulson & Co., the Rahm Emmanuel-linked Magnetar and so on.
“You don’t get it, Ames. Even Khuzami, the SEC guy in charge of the Goldman case, is a fraud; the fucker was Deutsche’s general counsel when they pulled the same CDO scam as Goldman. You have no idea how deep this goes.”
And it’s clear that a lot more people here are aware of how fundamentally rotten things are but they’re not willing to face the big fraudonomics bummer yet, preferring instead to stick with specific accusations.
My position on this was, “Good, throw the book at those crooks too, I don’t see what the problem is here.”
This was exactly what I argued a week ago, during a verbal slapfight with that acquaintance of mine. We were making a scene in a Midtown yuppie restaurant, arguing over just how much damage Wall Street had caused, and what to do about it.%u202F
His position was indefensible, and he knew it, so he switch-
“OK Ames, which bankers would you throw the book at? Because you’re arguing that they’re all guilty. So which ones do you go after? Two of them? Three? Half of them?”
“Every last one of them. Lock ’em up in one of their private prisons.”
“Not gonna happen, Che.”
“Che? Me? Listen, Scarface, I’m about law and order. Don’t any of you PE degenerates believe in that anymore?”
“OK, here’s the deal, Che. I’m going to walk you through this nice and slow so that even an agave-sweetened hippie like you can understand this. Stick with me, this is gonna be a little complicated. Ready?” And so he began.
“Let’s say the government decides one day, ‘You know, we oughta listen to Che here, let’s throw the book at every firm and every executive that our people can make a case against. Because you know, gosh, it’s all about rule of law and blind justice, just like Che says.’ OK, so now this means indicting just about every serious player in finance, so they take down Goldman Sachs, they take down Citigroup, JP Morgan, BofA… and they also serve all the big funds who are at least as guilty, if not more. So they shut down Pimco, Blackrock, Citadel… maybe they indict Geithner and Summers, haul in some of Bush’s crooks… right?”
“Go on, I’m gonna order some hot, buttered popcorn for this. Don’t mind me.” I liked what I was hearing so far.
“OK, now guess what you’ve just done? You’ve just caused the markets to completely tank. Remember what happened after the Lehman collapse? Remember how popular that made every politician in Washington? Still wondering why they coughed up a trillion bucks? They were scared for their lives; that’s why they voted for that bailout. You’d have done the same goddamn thing. But if we go after everyone guilty of fraud and theft, the market crash this country would see would make 2008 look like Sesame Street. Open that can of worms labeled ‘Fraud’ and the whole fucking economy collapses. You may as well prosecute people for masturbating. No one will know where the fraud investigation stops and who will be charged next—everyone will try to cash out, and the markets will tank to zero. And guess what happens when the markets tank to zero? Every fucking American with a retirement plan, or an investment portfolio, or a 401k—every state pension plan in the country, every teacher’s pension fund, every fireman’s pension—every last one of them will be wiped out. That’s what the Lehman collapse taught us.”
“Us? It didn’t teach anything but that this country is run by maniacs.”
“Jesus H. Christ, you’re even more clueless than the idiots who managed the Lehman collapse. I mean, didn’t everyone get it how badly those idiots screwed up with Lehman? It was the biggest screw-up this hemisphere has ever seen. You had Secretary Paulson and Fed Chief Bernanke scratching their asses not knowing what to do, so then they go, ‘OK, we’re supposed to be a free market economy, and we’re supposed to be the Republicans—let’s try something different for a change since nothing else is working. Let’s go out on a limb and actually give this “free market” thing a whirl. Who knows? Maybe the “free market” really works the way we always say it does. Nothing else seems to work, let’s let the free market decide Lehman’s fate. Maybe corporate-socialism isn’t the answer.’ So they hung Lehman out in the free-market, and BAM! The. Shit. Hit. The. Fan. No shit, dudes—the free market is for suckers, didn’t your daddy teach you idiots that? Not only did Lehman collapse—everything collapsed; confidence in the entire system collapsed. And here’s what I’m trying to explain to simpletons like you: Our economy is just a confidence game. Don’t ask me how it got this way, don’t care.”
I tried saying something insulting to him, but he just talked right over me. He was on such a roll.
“I’m sure you have the answer, you and Ron Paul and all the other pot-smoking libertarian do-gooders have it all figured out. But what I’m saying is, no confidence means end of the confidence game. That’s what Lehman showed. Every single player in finance suddenly had to face the fundamental problem—this whole fucking economy is built on fraud and lies and garbage. So when Lehman collapsed, every single player panicked, going, ‘If Lehman was nothing but a Ponzi scheme—and I know what I’m running is a Ponzi scheme—holy shit, that means everyone else is running a Ponzi scheme too! Run for the exits!’ No one trusted anyone else, everyone pulled out, and the entire global economy collapsed just like that. And that meant your parents, my parents, every teacher, every fireman, every person in the country going into retirement, every price on every asset—wiped out.
“And here’s what I’m trying to get you to understand: In the grown-up world, when an entire country’s savings accounts are wiped out because of some do-gooder and his law books and his Thomas Jefferson ‘What about free and fair markets?’ crap, that is a big problem—people don’t give a fuck about Jefferson and ‘free and fair markets,’ they just want their savings to be worth something. And people are right: Jefferson was an imbecile. He should have been a folk singer, not a Founding fucking Father. But that’s another issue that’s over your head—the point is, the guy who destroys this economy because it’s ‘the right thing to do’ will have to flee for his life, and whatever president or political party was in power when that decision was made will be out of power for the next 200 years. That’s why Washington panicked and passed ‘the bailout,’ they didn’t want to be the fools whom all the Ponzi victims blame for tanking the Ponzi scheme, so they broke the glass and pumped up a newer, bigger Ponzi scheme. It was an expensive 14 trillion dollar lesson in, ‘Stay the fuck away from free-market experiments, assholes!’ How naive are you people to actually believe that ‘free market’ crap? The problem is when people in power are stupid enough to listen to guys like you: all the do-gooder libertarians and the do-gooder free-market Republicans who forgot that they’re supposed to lie. Hello!”
“Libertarian, me? Since when was I ever a libertarian?”
“That’s my point: Fools like you don’t even know who you are anymore. They forgot that they’re supposed to lie about all that libertarian free-market shit, keep it far the fuck out of policy. But instead of just lying about free-markets while secretly propping up Lehman, the idiots actually tried pulling off a ‘free-market’ miracle, and we had to pay $14 trillion just to find out what I could have told them for no fee at all, which is: ‘Hey, assholes, you’re supposed to be hypocrites, OK? You’re supposed to be two-faced free-market liars, not libertarian Quakers! You’re not supposed to believe in anything—your job is to get up in front of the public and lie about free markets and the rest. Period.’
“That’s it, how fucking hard is it? Look, watch my face: Say one thing out of one side… and do the other out of the other side. Got that? Let everyone else whine and cry about, ‘Ooh, that’s not fair, ooh, that’s a bailout, that’s socialism, that’s corruption.’ That’s what losers do—they whine. You, for example, Che—you whine all the time, and look at you… Can you pay the bill for this meal? Is there a libertarian on earth who can afford to buy a decent meal in Manhattan? And now, look at me: I’m a hypocrite. Hell yes I am! I lie every day of my life, I lie to myself in my sleep. Hell, I’m lying to you right now, in fact I don’t even know what the fuck I’m saying anymore because I’m so used to lying. And yet—who’s the guy with the black card? Who’s the one who’s going to pick up the check tonight? Guys with power, guys like me, we lie. You got that? ‘Lie’ as in ‘My Lai’ the massacre—as in, ‘My Lai you long time, me so free-markety.’ You distract the dumbshits with free-market B.S. because hey, for whatever reason, that’s what the public likes to hear, it doesn’t really matter what lie you feed them so long as it’s the lie that puts them in a trance. And then behind the scenes, you do the very opposite: You fix the game, you cover up this problem here with those funds there, you move shit around, you skim budgets and you subsidize the system, you cover up the bad shit and once in a while throw a has-been to the wolves to keep the public entertained—that’s the way the system works, and anyone who’s an adult understands that. And everyone who doesn’t understand that can go form an online libertarian chat group and complain with all their little libertarian friends about free markets and Jekyll Island and ‘Wahhh! It’s not not fair, waahhhh!’”
“What’s with the libertarian accusation?”
“It’s just that you all sound the same to me. Libertarians, hippies—is there really a difference? You all whine alike: ‘It’s not fair, man! Ooh! You can’t do that, it’s fraud, it’s corruption, ooh no!’ Or: ‘It’s the income inequality, man; Goldman Sachs controls us all man; it’s socialism for the rich; it’s all too scary for my retarded 5-year-old libertarian brain!’ Seriously, anytime I meet libertarians like you—”
“Listen—I’m not a fucking libertarian, OK? I want free handouts. How clear do I have to make this? Me—handouts. Me—Big Government. I want to collectivize your productive cash, because I am a resentful parasite. Are you capable of processing a single word of what I’m saying to you, Spaz?”
“Uh-huh, sure, whatever. Here’s the thing: I think it’s great that you and your friends memorized Road to Serfdom in between Star Trek episodes—no really, I’m happy for you. Yeah, we’re all so proud. But here’s the thing: We grown-ups are really, really busy now trying to sort out the free-market mess you made with that Lehman move of yours. Yeah, so why don’t you run along to your libertarian chat rooms and have your little debates about Jekyll Island and the gold standard, because it really means a lot to us. And report back to me as soon as you have it all figured out, m’kay? Just get the fuck out of my face and leave the adults alone.”
It got a lot more vicious and personal than this, but when our verbal slap-fight ended—and he paid the bill—I thought about what he said, and it made a lot more sense. Fraud has become so endemic in this country that it’s woven its way into America’s DNA, forming a symbiotic relationship that can’t be undone without killing off the host. If they push it just a little too hard, the entire American economy could crash, asset values could tank, and that means tens of millions of extremely pissed off retirees and Baby Boomers. As the Wall Streeter put it: “Whoever is responsible for bursting this latest bubble by exposing all the fraud—and tanking all the markets—will not only be out of power for at least a generation, but they’ll all have to get radical reconstructive surgery on their faces and seek political asylum somewhere remote. No one wants to be that guy, and that’s why it’s not going to happen.”
That may be true, but all bubbles to eventually burst, all Ponzi schemes do collapse. The only question is when. For those of us not on the verge of retiring, the sooner we have this day of reckoning and get it over with, the better.
Not sure how pervasive fraud is in our society these days? Check out Mark Ames’ quick and easy Fun Fraudonomics Facts here.