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Weekly Audit: Progressive pressure is repairing the economy

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium MediaWire Blogger

Progressive media is sounding the alarm on the AIG bonus scandal, demanding that policymakers stop repeating Bush administration mistakes and offering concrete solutions to the dire economic situation those missteps have created.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich describes the bonus insanity in a blog distributed by AlterNet. "Had AIG gone into chapter 11 bankruptcy or been liquidated, as it would have without government aid, no bonuses would ever be paid," Reich writes, noting that institutions like AIG "are no longer within the capitalist system because they are no longer accountable to the market." If AIG is not accountable to the Treasury Secretary of the country that owns an 80% stake in AIG, then the company has unlimited access to taxpayer coffers without being accountable to anyone at all.

The government's first set of actions after it took control of its AIG stake back in September should have been to identify and renegotiate every important contract the company was tied up in. Whether those contracts were guaranteed bonuses with current employees or complex credit default swap transactions with Goldman Sachs, the extraordinary assistance the government had agreed to provide would have been a perfectly legitimate legal justification to demand new contractual terms. In short, the government should have exercised the benefits of ownership—exactly what progressive economists, columnists and bloggers have been demanding since the bailout debate began.

But while the uproar over AIG's bonuses vindicates progressive calls for more stringent action to rein in the financial predators, President Barack Obama inherited an economy in very real danger of collapse, with the banking crisis is the epicenter of the economic earthquake.

While most economists are warning of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Robert Kuttner reveals for The American Prospect why this one might actually be worse. When the stock market crashed in 1929, the U.S. financial system was still generally healthy. It took another three years for unemployment and general economic malaise to overwhelm the banking world. Today, the banking system is already broken and could get even worse without swift and dramatic action from the Obama administration. The U.S. is not a major international creditor as it was in 1929, but rather the world's largest debtor, and today far more Americans have their life savings tied up in the value of their home and in the stock market than in the early years of the Depression. Millions of Americans have already seen their nest eggs decimated in the current recession, a process which took years during the Herbert Hoover administration.

Kuttner emphasizes that the situation is not hopeless—it will simply require a bigger set of policy tools than the Bush administration was willing to wield. "All of these economic calamities have solutions, but each is more radical that what's currently on offer," Kuttner writes. Temporarily nationalizing big banks has become inevitable if recovery is going to be taken seriously. We'll also have to get used to very large federal deficits—World War II deficits were nearly triple the deficit we will see this year. If foreign creditors decide to stop footing the bill, the U.S. may need to finance its economic salvation by selling recovery bonds to our own citizens just as we sold war bonds in the 1940s war bonds.

The key is to keep the progressive pressure on high. In an interview with GritTV's Laura Flanders, Barbara Ehrenreich emphasizes the importance of the current economic situation for the future of progressive ideals. Ehrenreich identifies as a socialist and is most famous for her book Nickel and Dimed about living on poverty-level wages. The fact that we have allowed Wall Street to drain hundreds of billions of dollars in public sector resources should be terrifying, according to Ehrenreich, and even those who do not share her ideological affiliations can see that the current loot-and-let-die arrangement is not only unfair, but not working.

"[Obama] needs a left on the economic issue," Ehrenreich argues. "We've got to make the pressure real."

The AIG debacle proves her point. Writing for The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen highlights Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's "I feel your pain" moment during Sunday's 60 Minutes interview in which he voiced outrage over AIG's destructive behavior. "If Bernanke thinks that's going to dissipate the public anger, he's likely to be disappointed," according to Benen.

And indeed, a handful of commentators including Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo laid into the government's bailout engineers over the past couple of weeks for refusing to disclose AIG's counterparties. The Treasury finally caved on Monday, so despite Geithner's protests, we now know exactly who AIG paid with its bailout money from 2008, mostly European banks. But as TruthDig's Ear to the Ground blog notes, even this victory is just a step in the right direction—Treasury is yet to explain how AIG bailout funds have been spent in 2009. Better still, the administration might also stop bestowing taxpayer largesse on Wall Street incorrigibles who, let's not forget, created the economic problem in the first place.

Political discourse is not the only forum for progressive pressure. To that end, the NAACP has filed class-action lawsuits against subprime behemoths Wells Fargo and HSBC seeking some for discriminatory mortgage lending. As Michelle Chen explains for Colorlines, black Americans routinely pay more for their mortgages than white borrowers with identical qualifications, and are often denied loans entirely based on nothing but the color of their skin.

If you want social justice, this is the economic moment to demand it.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy. Visit StimulusPlan.NewsLadder.net and Economy.NewsLadder.net for complete lists of articles on the economy, or follow us on Twitter.

And for the best progressive reporting on critical health and immigration issues, check out Healthcare.NewsLadder.net and Immigration.NewsLadder.net.

This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and was created by NewsLadder.

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