Goldman Sachs reports better-than-expected profits this quarter. Wells Fargo cleared record profits last week. The President, understandably, points to signs of hope and encourages Americans to be optimistic about the economy. But when do we move from healthy confidence to a confidence game? The banks are reporting profits thanks to massive infusions of taxpayer bailout funds. It's simply silly to be lulled by cheery-sounding reports when the institutions are actually insolvent. At some point we have to take a clear-eyed look at the massive failure of our financial system. Ignoring it won't make it go away.

That's more or less what Elizabeth Warren, the distinguished chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, says in her panel's six-month report on the bank bailout. Warren, the government's watchdog, concedes that there are differences of opinion on her panel, which probably accounts for her very carefully couched discussion of the crisis. Although she told The Observer-http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/apr/05/useconomy-regulators that it is "preposterous" that the government hasn't fired the bank managers who are responsible for the derivatives disaster, her panel's report is cautious, with a scholarly explanation of the crisis in her video introduction. Nonetheless, the underlying criticism is obvious.

In a financial crisis like the current one, Warren explains, the government has three choices: 1. Liquidate failed banks. (That's what happened in the S&L crisis. The government took over institutions, fired the managers, wiped out investors, but protected depositors. A lot of savings and loans simply went out of business.) 2. Put them in receivership. (That's what Sweden did in the 1990s: failed managers were fired and replaced, depositors were protected, and the banks were returned to private hands under new management with healthier balance sheets.) or 3. Subsidize the banks. This last option is what led Japan to its "lost decade"--the real value of bank assets are obscured, as the government funnels tax money into insolvent banks, propping them up indefinitely. This last is the approach the United States is now taking.

If you want to hear someone absolutely destroy that approach to the current crisis, check out a round of recent interviews with William Black, the professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri who was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. during the S&L crisis in the 1980s. Black, who liquidated a few banks in his time and earned the eternal enmity of Charles Keating, minces no words in describing the massive fraud by bankers and the regulators, including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, whom he describes as abetting them.

"This whole bank scandal makes Teapot Dome look like some kind of kids' doll set," Black told the investors' journal Barron's in an interview published in the print edition on April 13. (The interview appeared online on April 9, but you need a paid subscription to access the site). He covers the same points in a highly watchable interview on Bill Moyer's Journal..

"We have lost the ability to be blunt," Black tells Barrons. He is talking about the person he describes to Bill Moyers as a "failed regulator," Geithner. "Now we have a situation where Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner can speak of a $2 trillion hole in the banking system, at the same time all the major banks report they are well capitalized. And you have seen no regulatory action against what amounts to a $2 trillion accounting fraud. The reason we don't see it--aren't told about it--is that if they were honest, prompt corrective action would kick in, and then they would have to deal with the problem banks."

In other words, the banks are insolvent. That's why they must rely on the Troubled Assets Relief Program. But at the same time, they are claiming to be healthy. Both things can't be true.

So we get smiley-face reports about how Goldman and Wells Fargo are posting record profits. Investors and citizens are supposed to be excited to see those profit numbers--comprised of their own tax dollars plus the banks refusing to accurately value their toxic assets.

This is more than an unfortunate downturn, Black says. It is the result of massive, pervasive fraud, and a deregulatory culture that has nurtured criminal behavior by very highly paid bank executives.

The whole culture is rotten. And the regulators come right out of that corrupt, Wall Street culture.

"No one has to tell someone to stretch the numbers," Black says of the way corruption trickles down through these institutions. "It is all around them. It is in the rank-or-yank performance and retention systems advocated by top business executives. Here, the top 20 percent get the bulk of the benefits and the bottom 10 percent get fired. You don't directly tell your employees to lie or cheat. You set up an atmosphere of results at any cost."

Yet we live in a broader culture so enamored of the money-making magicians of Wall Street that a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times is still lamenting the "brain drain" on Wall Street. The lead anecdote features former UBS employee (whose firm's  major screw-ups turned it into a prime TARP welfare recipient). He is so disturbed by shrinking bonuses and a climate of gloom in his old gig that he has moved to the high-rolling Aladdin Capital. That's the real name. As in Poof! There goes your money!

It's time for real regulation to stop all this, says Black. Geithner must go.

"Unless the current administration changes course pretty drastically, the scandal will destroy Barack Obama's presidency," he predicts.

The beauty part: real regulators will have no trouble getting through Congress, Black tells Moyers, because they pay their taxes.

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When many of the world’s hot spots seems to be spiraling into further violence, Colombia offers hope.

Neoliberal free trade zombies got it wrong.

Anger brewing against NAFTA and the TPP has changed the political debate.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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