On Sunday evening, President-elect Barack Obama and future First Lady Michelle Obama sat down with Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes for their first interview since the election. They were charming on the topics of their young daughters, how their lives have changed, the potential presidential pooch and Obama's mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, who may live with them in the White House. But I was more interested in the policy discussion, particularly the economy.
Noting that he has a transition team assigned to be in daily contact with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Obama sidestepped a question about whether he is "in sync" with the man who is running the $700 billion bailout. Instead, he acknowledged one area I believe is a large - perhaps the largest - obstacle to rebuilding the economy any time soon:
"...there's no doubt," said Obama, "that we have not been able yet to reset the confidence in the financial markets and in the consumer markets and among businesses that allow the economy to move forward in a strong way. And my job as president is gonna be to make sure that we restore that confidence." Full transcript here]
Confidence is a subjective, elusive state of being. It can't be bought and sold or forced by presidential edict. It grows from trust gained over time through experience with a person or institution that operates in fairness. But who we trust differs among people depending on many factors. For example, what I have learned about Barack Obama over two years leads me to feel confident that as president he will keep the best interests of the country and its people (over corporations and cronies) in mind as he makes many decisions during the next four years. Conversely, the 47 percent who voted for Senator John McCain apparently don't share my confidence in Obama.
However, what I have zero confidence in these days are the executives of banks, Wall Street firms and corporations in general who, with the acquiescence and cooperation of politicians in Washington, have spent a generation robbing citizens of their jobs, homes and savings; the country of its treasury; and the future of its well-being.
From the least to the largest aspects of our lives, we have been bilked by corporations and our government. Average salaries have not increased, relative to inflation, in more than a decade. Millions of jobs have been deliberately shipped overseas with nothing here to replace them. Those two facts alone go a long way toward accounting for the massive personal debt Americans carry.
Additionally, millions were tricked into mortgages for homes for they could not afford, sold at prices inflated beyond their intrinsic value. Millions more were sold toxic investments while being assured nothing could go wrong. And nearly every adult in the country found their credit cards, signed on for at interest rates of eight or ten percent, suddenly costing usury rates when the credit corporations, overnight and based on greed alone, increased interest rates to 25 and 30 percent.
Meanwhile, the executives of these corporations and hedge fund managers (and politicians, who return to the private sector after having created legislation - or thwarted it, whichever works to their personal advantage - to enrich their corporate campaign contributors) grant themselves astronomical salaries and bonuses commonly reaching into the eight and, over time, nine figures while paying income taxes at a far lower rate than you and I, and bitching about inheritance and capital gains taxes too.
If you think that isn't literally our money they take home, you haven't been paying attention for the past 20 years. It came from all that I've listed above along with neglecting the national infrastructure, schools, transportation, the environment and, among others, this particularly reprehensible outrage: the law that prevents Medicare from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies as the Veterans Administration does.
You can thank former Louisiana Rep. Billy Tauzin for that legislation which he forced through Congress just two months before leaving to become head of the powerful Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America lobby at a reported $2.1 million a year salary. It is rare that a politician is so transparent in his greed that the public is allowed see the straight line between his self-serving legislation and his personal bank account.
There will be no renewed confidence in the "financial markets, consumer markets and businesses" Obama referenced in his 60 Minutes interview until the corporate thieves pay in some manner proportionate to their crimes. So far there is no indication that will happen.
Just last week we were treated to news that some banks have set aside several billions of bailout money for executive bonuses this year. With the exception of one or two, there has been no announcement that the CEOs and other leaders of banks and corporations who wrecked the economy (leaving many elders and others destitute of a lifetime of savings) have been fired. No salaries have been reduced to governmental levels even though bailout banks are being partially nationalized.
While these people keep their several mansions, Bentleys, yachts, art that belongs in museums, dozens of $5,000 suits, astronomical salaries and bonuses, the American people are paying for it all in blood, hunger and cold in winter.
"...hopefully, everybody's learned their lesson," said Obama on 60 Minutes. "And the answer is not heavy-handed regulations that crush the entrepreneurial spirit and risk taking of American capitalism. That's what's made our economy great. But it is to restore a sense of balance."
Also, "I think that we have to restore a sense of trust, transparency, openness in our financial system."
Trust? Confidence? From me? Not a chance. Not until the guilty pay enough that it hurts them as much as the rest of us. America's sense of fair play demands it. And no Bush era excuses, as Secretary Paulson suggested, that these people are needed - at multi-million-dollar salaries - because they know how the markets operate. Nonsense. They are ones who broke the markets. There are plenty of unemployed, smart people right now who would willingly take over at reasonable cost. Citibank fired 50,000 people yesterday. There is no doubt some are qualified.
There will be no restoration of confidence, no renewed trust in our commercial institutions and, therefore, no economic recovery until some evidence of fair play is forthcoming which means someone pays. Re-regulation - light or heavy-handed - is not enough. I hope President-elect Obama, who seems, generally, to avoid placing blame, understands that the great mass of Americans is seething at their betrayal and "let them eat cake" will not do.[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Karen Swift re-inaugurates that blog with a story titled, Remembering Who You Are.]