Neil Barofsky, a former official who actually put bankers in jail (imagine that!) is coming out with a tell-all book called “Bailout” about his experience as the Special Inspector General for TARP. I don’t normally put up press releases, but this book will be upsetting to the administration because this is someone who was involved in the decisions, and Barofsky did not play ball with the Wall Street crowd. Here’s the announcement.
From December 2008 until March 2011, Barofsky was the Special Inspector General charged with oversight of TARP, working to ensure against fraud and abuse in the spending of the $700 billion allocated for the bailouts. From the start he was in constant conflict with the officials at the Treasury Department in charge of the bailouts who were in thrall to the interests of the big banks and steadfastly failed to hold them accountable, even as they disregarded major job losses caused by the auto bailouts and failed to help struggling homeowners. Barofsky recounts how his reports of a wave of criminal mortgage fraud and other abuses being perpetrated against homeowners in connection with programs that the Treasury itself set up were ignored time and again.
Barofsky offers detailed accounts of the behind-the-scenes conflicts and his struggles with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the Bush appointed “TARP Czar” Neel Kashkari and his successor, the Obama appointed Herb Allison, and others. His revelations show in stark detail just how captured by Wall Street our political system is; why the banks have not been held accountable; and how the failure to enact effective regulation has put the country in danger of an even bigger crisis in the future.
There are two broad narratives about Barack Obama from American elites. On the right, there’s a racist narrative about Obama’s socialist Kenyan origins, with offshoot dishonest arguments about his policies. He’s anti-corporate! He’s gone on a government spending frenzy! He’s going to cut the size of the military! These are not true. On the Democratic side, there’s an equally dishonest set of arguments. He’s not bold enough! Congress is holding him back from his progressive instincts! We haven’t made him do what we know he wants to do! The real Obama is hidden behind a racist veneer on the right, that he’s a Kenyan socialist, and a fake narrative on the left, that he’s not bold enough. The third narrative, which you can find on this blog, is that Barack Obama is a great deceiver, with a charming and cool demeanor that mask his ruthlessness and bank-friendly neoliberal ideology. It’s hard to talk to this third narrative, because Democrats overwhelmingly approve of Obama, and Republicans simply cannot countenance the idea that their socialist enemy is as friendly or even more friendly to corporate power than they are.
But there are a few brave souls who are speaking truth, and the information about who Obama is and what he has done is slowly coming out. Charles Ferguson’s excellent new book, Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America, is the first post-mortem of the financial crisis in which the lens is political corruption in both parties and in economics. Ferguson, who made the Academy Award documentary Inside Job, sees the financial crisis first and foremost as a political problem, of oligarchy and a captured political system. The technical details – Volcker Rule, Dodd-Frank, etc – are just that. Ferguson isn’t dancing around the problem, either. He puts the blame on, among other people, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I’ll have more on this book.
Still, very few elite actors are actually giving talking to this third narrative. We can see this in the 2012 election, in which, for all its fake heat, Romney and Obama are both trying as best they can to nose each other out, while promising virtually nothing of economic substance to the public. Romney and Obama are simply talking to economic elites who will pay them off - occasionally this becomes obvious, as we’re seeing with a recent flap over private equity. Corey Booker’s comments, when he called attacks on private equity “nauseating”, brought in a brief flash to the public the hidden election of elites behind the scenes making decisions about who to back and why. In the actually race itself, the polling is dead even, and has been since Romney consolidated the nomination. Neither candidate has much power to shift the polls, except through gruesome errors or by talking to voters instead of the economically powerful interests who fund them. The latter won’t happen, the former might. At this point, Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Angela Merkel have more power over the American election than either candidate.
The reality is that it is the strength of Obama’s narrative, and the lack of a left-wing analysis of who he is as a person, that gives Obama all the cover he needs to enact bank-friendly policies. You can see this strength in the utter lack of an effective comedic impersonator of Barack Obama. When Tina Fey first gave her impression of Sarah Palin, the political world exploded in chatter about how perfectly Fey had captured Palin’s character. Will Ferrell nailed something about Bush (as did my favorite impressionist, James Adomian), a kind of juvenile cunning frat-boy type spirit. American comics play the role of the jester, and are sometimes the only ones who can speak truth to power. The comedy world has produced a series of people who can mimic what Obama sounds like, but these people tend to see him as having a heart of gold and hiding his anger at the Republicans. There is no comedian who has captured the breezy self-aware cynicism, the way that Obama dishonestly promises actions he does not intend to follow through on, while giving a sort of running commentary as a meta-pundit on himself and the political system.
A third narrative needs to emerge. A true impression of Obama would be both devastating and hilarious. It would also require a profound level of bravery and skill to showcase a picture of the first black President as a corrupt plutocrat. This lack of comedic insight is directly related to the broader phenomenon of American elite dishonesty about Barack Obama. Comedians get their information largely from the news, and from elite actors who tell them about what is going on. As more people who have direct experience with the administration, people like Barofsky, give clear details about the policy choices (and they are choices, the system is not set in stone) that this administration made, the strength of Obama’s narrative will erode.