The Crash That Failed

William Powhida/Postmasters Gallery
William Powhida: Griftopia, 2011; a ten-foot-wide ‘visual translation’ of the 2008 financial crisis based on Matt Taibbi’s 2010 book of the same title

The historian G.M. Trevelyan said that the democratic revolutions of 1848, all of which were quickly crushed, represented “a turning point at which modern history failed to turn.” The same can be said of the financial collapse of 2008. The crash demonstrated the emptiness of the claim that markets could regulate themselves. It should have led to the disgrace of neoliberalism—the belief that unregulated markets produce and distribute goods and services more efficiently than regulated ones. Instead, the old order reasserted itself, and with calamitous consequences. Gross economic imbalances of power and wealth persisted. We are still experiencing the reverberations.

In the United States, the bipartisan financial elite escaped largely unscathed. Barack Obama, whose campaign benefited from the timing of the collapse, hired the architects of the Clinton-era deregulation who had created the conditions that led to the crisis. Far from breaking up the big banks or removing their executives, Obama’s team bailed them out. None of the leading bankers whose fraudulent products caused the economy to crash went to jail; criminal prosecution took a back seat to the stability of the system. Obama’s tepid program provided just enough stimulus, via a modest public-spending program and cheap unlimited credit for bankers, for a slow recovery. But the economic security of most Americans dwindled, and the legitimacy of the system was called into question. One consequence has been the rise of the far right; another is Donald Trump.

In Europe the aftermath was worse. Fragmented into twenty-eight member states, the EU could not pursue even the minimal policies of Obama. Germany had already spent some E1.3 trillion on the economic integration of the former DDR and was in no mood to underwrite the recovery of the entire continent. Germany insisted that the struggling countries had to practice austerity in order to restore the confidence of private financial markets. In a deep recession, even orthodox economists at the International Monetary Fund soon recognized that austerity was a perverse recipe for economic recovery.

But the German demands dictated policy for the continent. In addition, the European Central Bank (ECB) had neither the formal powers nor the political consent of its national masters to become a lender-of-last-resort, as the Fed has been in the US since 1932. After the crash, the Fed kept interest rates down and made credit easily available to the financial industry, which prevented the collapse from becoming a general depression. The US government took on debt to pay for services without having to raise taxes (a policy known as fiscal stimulus), and it could extend credit to keep markets liquid. But Europe, because of Germany’s worries that these policies would lead to inflation, had no way to extend credit to struggling…

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