November 24, 2013

Naomi Klein and Systemic Change

In the October 29, 2013 issue of the New Statesmen, Naomi Klein published the article “How science is telling us all to revolt”. She writes that more and more scientists are recognizing that continual growth and profit maximization, innate to capitalism, are encouraging climate destruction. They see civil disobedience as a powerful tool to fight for a system change.
I agree but at the same time I long for more positive alternatives and I see serious limits in the potential of civil disobedience and public protest.
Civil disobedience is extremely important and protest has been and will remain a vital form for people to express their grievances and formulate their demands. In order to create and test the alternatives and to build support at all levels of society, however, we need to look for additional channels, additional tools.
What could these tools look like? One way is to create a mechanism to measure to what extent corporations, non-profits and even government agencies work towards the common good. Let us citizens create a manifest of demands, a set of best practice against which companies and other organizations are measured. In an international, democratic process we can formulate this list of standards based on universal values found in the Geneva Convention and constitutions around the world. These include human dignity, cooperation, sustainability, social justice and democracy.
A company can then be put to the test. How do they measure up? Make the results public and understandable. Make it easy to compare the results of Costco and Whole Foods or Sacramento and Albany. By creating this clear set of standards companies know what is expected of them. They don’t have to fear that each year another set of standards will appear out of nowhere, forcing them to go through another expensive and time-consuming reorganization of internal processes.
With this kind of scorecard in their hands consumers can choose the more ethical product and further stakeholders can better judge the impact of a particular company.
Certainly this is a wildly different approach than civil disobedience. They both, however, share the goal of systemic change.
An international movement called the Economy for the Common Good has begun the journey of creating the value-based standards and has created a tool to measure companies and to hold them accountable to ethic, environmental and human rights principles.
Learn more at

October 26, 2013

Patagonia’s founder says the true bottom line is “doing good” 

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor clothing company, Patagonia, wrote in his book "Our mission statement says nothing about making a profit. In fact Malinda and I consider our bottom line to be the amount of good that the business has accomplished over the year. [...] Our intent is to remain a closely held private company, so we can continue to focus on our bottom line, doing good." (Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard, Penguin Books, 2006, p. 160, 164)

A new movement called the "Economy for the Common Good" has been gaining momentum in Europe and can help transform Chouinard's business principle into an instrument to encourage businesses across the globe to refocus towards doing good.

What is meant by "common" and by "good" within this context? Who belongs to the "common" and what is the "good"? The Economy for the Common Good (ECG) addresses these questions and has created a tool to help businesses across the globe live up to Chouinard’s ideal.

The stakeholder theory of business ethics provides us with an answer to the first part of the question: who belongs to "common"? Stakeholders are the various groups impacted by a company. It can be the customer who buys a product or the supplier of the material. A successful business looks after the needs of each stakeholder group. If the customer is not satisfied, the business will likely fail. At the same time, if the local community in which a business operates is adversely affected, it can also be detrimental to success. According to a more broad interpretation of the stakeholder model, the following five groups are impacted: suppliers, investors, employees/owners, customers/partners, and society/environment.

For the answer to the "good" part of the equation we simply need to turn to the constitutions found in most democratic societies. Certain values are enshrined in these constitutions and should be applied to the business world. In an open, democratic process the ECG has distilled these values into five areas: human dignity, cooperation, sustainability, justice and democracy/transparency.

Using these values as a guideline, businesses create a so-called Common Good Balance Sheet in which they measure their company’s impact in 17 different areas. These 17 indicators, clearly illustrated in the Common Good Matrix, range from ethical supply chain management to environmental impact to just income distribution.

Through a process of peer evaluation and/or external audit, a company produces a Common Good Report and receives points based on how they impact their stakeholders. The point system and the audits ensure the validity of the score and the resulting Common Good Balance Sheet gives an understandable, transparent, comprehensive picture of how well a company is serving the common good. The point system makes it possible for customers, investors, suppliers and the general public to immediately judge the social and environmental impact of large and small companies across all branches of business.

The Common Good Balance Sheet is a 2nd generation corporate social responsibility (CSR) instrument, designed to encourage companies to move away from the goal of profit maximization and towards “doing good”.

Learn more at

- Gus Hagelberg

July 13, 2013

An Activist for the Common Good

Without seeming pretentious I can safely call myself an “Activist for the Common Good”. Certainly I’m not the only one out there who proclaims to carry such a title. I bet there’s a bunch of us out there unbeknownst to each other. To tell the truth, I don’t even have a badge or a membership card proving my status. I am the real McCoy, though, and here’s why.
I am a volunteer and activist for the movement “Economy for the Common Good”. Wow! Cool, huh. Bet you’re jealous. Sure there are peace activists out there, human rights activists, environmental activists. They’re are all over the place. But have you ever met a Common Good activist before?
OK, as they say in German “Spass beiseite” which translates roughly to “let us now place the fun part aside and get down to some serious business”. For about 6 months now I’ve been involved in this Common Good thing and I think it’s pretty cool. Why? Well for one I like working for the Common Good. You might say “no shit”, don’t we all? My answer is, sure. That’s the second fun part about it. There’s a ton of support out there and when I tell people about it they mostly say something like “that sounds like a groovy idea”.
The goal of the movement is to put the public good, the environment and human dignity at the forefront of all economic activity and thus replacing the mantra of profit maximization with all of its disastrous consequences. Business and the public sector must work toward bettering the lives of humans across the planet, protecting the environmental, improving social justice and promoting democracy. Again, some may think “no brainer, dude”. That’s what we all want. But how do we get there? How can we convince CEO’s that short-term profit and shareholder value are not where its at?
One way is to mobilize the people, create issue campaigns, pressure politicians or fight for legislative change. While these activities are extremely important and can be effective, we want to go a different path. We want to change the system from within. We want to start a process of reevaluating what is really important for business owners, for employees, for civil servants and for all stakeholders in general.
Am I going to be happy and motivated working for a company that is chiefly interested in maximizing their profits, growing ever larger and wiping out competition? Is that what the Generation Y is looking for? Asking pointed questions about one’s own company can set off a transformative, powerful process. Questions like these need to be asked:
  • Is our supply chain environmentally and ethically sound?
  • Do we examine social and ecological aspects when choosing financial services?
  • Are the products we produce serving humankind or the environment?
  • What is the income disparity within our company?
  • What are we doing to discourage discrimination?
The Economy for the Common Good (ECG) has developed a system of value indicators used to measure a company’s performance. Is a company democratically organized? Are all employees paid a living wage? Is there gender equality and is the environment being protected?
Each of the 17 indicators has a maximum score and taken together add up to a maximum of 1000 points. With this simple, clear, understandable information, public officials, customers, clients and other stakeholders can immediately judge the performance of individual companies. Although an ECG report is mandatory, this “score card” makes it feasible for people to judge business behavior. Other tools for judging a companies social and environmental behavior require only a report and it is totally unrealistic to expect consumers to read reports before choosing which product to buy.
On the one hand, the ECG gives consumers and other stakeholders a tool to better judge the ethical, environmental and human rights standards being upheld by a particular company. On the other hand, the ECG provides companies with a tool to improve internal organizational issues, employee motivation, quality, and long-term stability. Moreover, it gives companies the ability to communicate to their customers exactly which steps they are taking to become a Common Good Business.
In the end, that is what has motivated me to become actively involved in this international, grass-roots movement for humane and sustainable economy. A network of local support groups is growing day by day. If there is not a group in your area already then you can start your own. Check out our website for more information at
Gus Hagelberg
July, 2013
Tübingen, Germany

August 31, 2012

William Black on the Banking Crisis

Bill Moyers
April 3, 2009
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the Journal.
For months now, revelations of the wholesale greed and blatant transgressions of Wall Street have reminded us that "The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One." In fact, the man you're about to meet wrote a book with just that title. It was based upon his experience as a tough regulator during one of the darkest chapters in our financial history: the savings and loan scandal in the late 1980s.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: These numbers as large as they are, vastly understate the problem of fraud.
BILL MOYERS: Bill Black was in New York this week for a conference at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice where scholars and journalists gathered to ask the question, "How do they get away with it?" Well, no one has asked that question more often than Bill Black.
The former Director of the Institute for Fraud Prevention now teaches Economics and Law at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. During the savings and loan crisis, it was Black who accused then-house speaker Jim Wright and five US Senators, including John Glenn and John McCain, of doing favors for the S&L's in exchange for contributions and other perks. The senators got off with a slap on the wrist, but so enraged was one of those bankers, Charles Keating — after whom the senate's so-called "Keating Five" were named — he sent a memo that read, in part, "get Black — kill him dead." Metaphorically, of course. Of course.
Now Black is focused on an even greater scandal, and he spares no one — not even the President he worked hard to elect, Barack Obama. But his main targets are the Wall Street barons, heirs of an earlier generation whose scandalous rip-offs of wealth back in the 1930s earned them comparison to Al Capone and the mob, and the nickname "banksters."
Bill Black, welcome to the Journal.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: I was taken with your candor at the conference here in New York to hear you say that this crisis we're going through, this economic and financial meltdown is driven by fraud. What's your definition of fraud?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Fraud is deceit. And the essence of fraud is, "I create trust in you, and then I betray that trust, and get you to give me something of value." And as a result, there's no more effective acid against trust than fraud, especially fraud by top elites, and that's what we have.
BILL MOYERS: In your book, you make it clear that calculated dishonesty by people in charge is at the heart of most large corporate failures and scandals, including, of course, the S&L, but is that true? Is that what you're saying here, that it was in the boardrooms and the CEO offices where this fraud began?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: How did they do it? What do you mean?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, the way that you do it is to make really bad loans, because they pay better. Then you grow extremely rapidly, in other words, you're a Ponzi-like scheme. And the third thing you do is we call it leverage. That just means borrowing a lot of money, and the combination creates a situation where you have guaranteed record profits in the early years. That makes you rich, through the bonuses that modern executive compensation has produced. It also makes it inevitable that there's going to be a disaster down the road.
BILL MOYERS: So you're suggesting, saying that CEOs of some of these banks and mortgage firms in order to increase their own personal income, deliberately set out to make bad loans?
BILL MOYERS: How do they get away with it? I mean, what about their own checks and balances in the company? What about their accounting divisions?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: All of those checks and balances report to the CEO, so if the CEO goes bad, all of the checks and balances are easily overcome. And the art form is not simply to defeat those internal controls, but to suborn them, to turn them into your greatest allies. And the bonus programs are exactly how you do that.
BILL MOYERS: If I wanted to go looking for the parties to this, with a good bird dog, where would you send me?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, that's exactly what hasn't happened. We haven't looked, all right? The Bush Administration essentially got rid of regulation, so if nobody was looking, you were able to do this with impunity and that's exactly what happened. Where would you look? You'd look at the specialty lenders. The lenders that did almost all of their work in the sub-prime and what's called Alt-A, liars' loans.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Liars' loans--
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Liars' loans.
BILL MOYERS: Why did they call them liars' loans?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because they were liars' loans.
BILL MOYERS: And they knew it?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: They knew it. They knew that they were frauds.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Liars' loans mean that we don't check. You tell us what your income is. You tell us what your job is. You tell us what your assets are, and we agree to believe you. We won't check on any of those things. And by the way, you get a better deal if you inflate your income and your job history and your assets.
BILL MOYERS: You think they really said that to borrowers?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: We know that they said that to borrowers. In fact, they were also called, in the trade, ninja loans.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Yeah, because no income verification, no job verification, no asset verification.
BILL MOYERS: You're talking about significant American companies.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Huge! One company produced as many losses as the entire Savings and Loan debacle.
BILL MOYERS: Which company?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: IndyMac specialized in making liars' loans. In 2006 alone, it sold $80 billion dollars of liars' loans to other companies. $80 billion.
BILL MOYERS: And was this happening exclusively in this sub-prime mortgage business?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: No, and that's a big part of the story as well. Even prime loans began to have non-verification. Even Ronald Reagan, you know, said, "Trust, but verify." They just gutted the verification process. We know that will produce enormous fraud, under economic theory, criminology theory, and two thousand years of life experience.
BILL MOYERS: Is it possible that these complex instruments were deliberately created so swindlers could exploit them?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Oh, absolutely. This stuff, the exotic stuff that you're talking about was created out of things like liars' loans, that were known to be extraordinarily bad. And now it was getting triple-A ratings. Now a triple-A rating is supposed to mean there is zero credit risk. So you take something that not only has significant, it has crushing risk. That's why it's toxic. And you create this fiction that it has zero risk. That itself, of course, is a fraudulent exercise. And again, there was nobody looking, during the Bush years. So finally, only a year ago, we started to have a Congressional investigation of some of these rating agencies, and it's scandalous what came out. What we know now is that the rating agencies never looked at a single loan file. When they finally did look, after the markets had completely collapsed, they found, and I'm quoting Fitch, the smallest of the rating agencies, "the results were disconcerting, in that there was the appearance of fraud in nearly every file we examined."
BILL MOYERS: So if your assumption is correct, your evidence is sound, the bank, the lending company, created a fraud. And the ratings agency that is supposed to test the value of these assets knowingly entered into the fraud. Both parties are committing fraud by intention.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Right, and the investment banker that — we call it pooling — puts together these bad mortgages, these liars' loans, and creates the toxic waste of these derivatives. All of them do that. And then they sell it to the world and the world just thinks because it has a triple-A rating it must actually be safe. Well, instead, there are 60 and 80 percent losses on these things, because of course they, in reality, are toxic waste.
BILL MOYERS: You're describing what Bernie Madoff did to a limited number of people. But you're saying it's systemic, a systemic Ponzi scheme.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Oh, Bernie was a piker. He doesn't even get into the front ranks of a Ponzi scheme...
BILL MOYERS: But you're saying our system became a Ponzi scheme.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Our system...
BILL MOYERS: Our financial system...
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Became a Ponzi scheme. Everybody was buying a pig in the poke. But they were buying a pig in the poke with a pretty pink ribbon, and the pink ribbon said, "Triple-A."
BILL MOYERS: Is there a law against liars' loans?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Not directly, but there, of course, many laws against fraud, and liars' loans are fraudulent.
BILL MOYERS: Because...
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because they're not going to be repaid and because they had false representations. They involve deceit, which is the essence of fraud.
BILL MOYERS: Why is it so hard to prosecute? Why hasn't anyone been brought to justice over this?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because they didn't even begin to investigate the major lenders until the market had actually collapsed, which is completely contrary to what we did successfully in the Savings and Loan crisis, right? Even while the institutions were reporting they were the most profitable savings and loan in America, we knew they were frauds. And we were moving to close them down. Here, the Justice Department, even though it very appropriately warned, in 2004, that there was an epidemic...
WILLIAM K. BLACK: The FBI publicly warned, in September 2004 that there was an epidemic of mortgage fraud, that if it was allowed to continue it would produce a crisis at least as large as the Savings and Loan debacle. And that they were going to make sure that they didn't let that happen. So what goes wrong? After 9/11, the attacks, the Justice Department transfers 500 white-collar specialists in the FBI to national terrorism. Well, we can all understand that. But then, the Bush administration refused to replace the missing 500 agents. So even today, again, as you say, this crisis is 1000 times worse, perhaps, certainly 100 times worse, than the Savings and Loan crisis. There are one-fifth as many FBI agents as worked the Savings and Loan crisis.
BILL MOYERS: You talk about the Bush administration. Of course, there's that famous photograph of some of the regulators in 2003, who come to a press conference with a chainsaw suggesting that they're going to slash, cut business loose from regulation, right?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, they succeeded. And in that picture, by the way, the other — three of the other guys with pruning shears are the...
BILL MOYERS: That's right.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: They're the trade representatives. They're the lobbyists for the bankers. And everybody's grinning. The government's working together with the industry to destroy regulation. Well, we now know what happens when you destroy regulation. You get the biggest financial calamity of anybody under the age of 80.
BILL MOYERS: But I can point you to statements by Larry Summers, who was then Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury, or the other Clinton Secretary of the Treasury, Rubin. I can point you to suspects in both parties, right?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: There were two really big things, under the Clinton administration. One, they got rid of the law that came out of the real-world disasters of the Great Depression. We learned a lot of things in the Great Depression. And one is we had to separate what's called commercial banking from investment banking. That's the Glass-Steagall law. But we thought we were much smarter, supposedly. So we got rid of that law, and that was bipartisan. And the other thing is we passed a law, because there was a very good regulator, Brooksley Born, that everybody should know about and probably doesn't. She tried to do the right thing to regulate one of these exotic derivatives that you're talking about. We call them C.D.F.S. And Summers, Rubin, and Phil Gramm came together to say not only will we block this particular regulation. We will pass a law that says you can't regulate. And it's this type of derivative that is most involved in the AIG scandal. AIG all by itself, cost the same as the entire Savings and Loan debacle.
BILL MOYERS: What did AIG contribute? What did they do wrong?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: They made bad loans. Their type of loan was to sell a guarantee, right? And they charged a lot of fees up front. So, they booked a lot of income. Paid enormous bonuses. The bonuses we're thinking about now, they're much smaller than these bonuses that were also the product of accounting fraud. And they got very, very rich. But, of course, then they had guaranteed this toxic waste. These liars' loans. Well, we've just gone through why those toxic waste, those liars' loans, are going to have enormous losses. And so, you have to pay the guarantee on those enormous losses. And you go bankrupt. Except that you don't in the modern world, because you've come to the United States, and the taxpayers play the fool. Under Secretary Geithner and under Secretary Paulson before him... we took $5 billion dollars, for example, in U.S. taxpayer money. And sent it to a huge Swiss Bank called UBS. At the same time that that bank was defrauding the taxpayers of America. And we were bringing a criminal case against them. We eventually get them to pay a $780 million fine, but wait, we gave them $5 billion. So, the taxpayers of America paid the fine of a Swiss Bank. And why are we bailing out somebody who that is defrauding us?
BILL MOYERS: And why...
WILLIAM K. BLACK: How mad is this?
BILL MOYERS: What is your explanation for why the bankers who created this mess are still calling the shots?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, that, especially after what's just happened at G.M., that's... it's scandalous.
BILL MOYERS: Why are they firing the president of G.M. and not firing the head of all these banks that are involved?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: There are two reasons. One, they're much closer to the bankers. These are people from the banking industry. And they have a lot more sympathy. In fact, they're outright hostile to autoworkers, as you can see. They want to bash all of their contracts. But when they get to banking, they say, ‘contracts, sacred.' But the other element of your question is we don't want to change the bankers, because if we do, if we put honest people in, who didn't cause the problem, their first job would be to find the scope of the problem. And that would destroy the cover up.
BILL MOYERS: The cover up?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Sure. The cover up.
BILL MOYERS: That's a serious charge.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Of course.
BILL MOYERS: Who's covering up?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Geithner is charging, is covering up. Just like Paulson did before him. Geithner is publicly saying that it's going to take $2 trillion — a trillion is a thousand billion — $2 trillion taxpayer dollars to deal with this problem. But they're allowing all the banks to report that they're not only solvent, but fully capitalized. Both statements can't be true. It can't be that they need $2 trillion, because they have masses losses, and that they're fine.
These are all people who have failed. Paulson failed, Geithner failed. They were all promoted because they failed, not because...
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, Geithner has, was one of our nation's top regulators, during the entire subprime scandal, that I just described. He took absolutely no effective action. He gave no warning. He did nothing in response to the FBI warning that there was an epidemic of fraud. All this pig in the poke stuff happened under him. So, in his phrase about legacy assets. Well he's a failed legacy regulator.
BILL MOYERS: But he denies that he was a regulator. Let me show you some of his testimony before Congress. Take a look at this.
TIMOTHY GEITHNER:I've never been a regulator, for better or worse. And I think you're right to say that we have to be very skeptical that regulation can solve all of these problems. We have parts of our system that are overwhelmed by regulation.
Overwhelmed by regulation! It wasn't the absence of regulation that was the problem, it was despite the presence of regulation you've got huge risks that build up.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, he may be right that he never regulated, but his job was to regulate. That was his mission statement.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: As president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which is responsible for regulating most of the largest bank holding companies in America. And he's completely wrong that we had too much regulation in some of these areas. I mean, he gives no details, obviously. But that's just plain wrong.
BILL MOYERS: How is this happening? I mean why is it happening?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Until you get the facts, it's harder to blow all this up. And, of course, the entire strategy is to keep people from getting the facts.
BILL MOYERS: What facts?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: The facts about how bad the condition of the banks is. So, as long as I keep the old CEO who caused the problems, is he going to go vigorously around finding the problems? Finding the frauds?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Taking away people's bonuses?
BILL MOYERS: To hear you say this is unusual because you supported Barack Obama, during the campaign. But you're seeming disillusioned now.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, certainly in the financial sphere, I am. I think, first, the policies are substantively bad. Second, I think they completely lack integrity. Third, they violate the rule of law. This is being done just like Secretary Paulson did it. In violation of the law. We adopted a law after the Savings and Loan crisis, called the Prompt Corrective Action Law. And it requires them to close these institutions. And they're refusing to obey the law.
BILL MOYERS: In other words, they could have closed these banks without nationalizing them?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, you do a receivership. No one -- Ronald Reagan did receiverships. Nobody called it nationalization.
BILL MOYERS: And that's a law?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: That's the law.
BILL MOYERS: So, Paulson could have done this? Geithner could do this?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Not could. Was mandated--
BILL MOYERS: By the law.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: By the law.
BILL MOYERS: This law, you're talking about.
BILL MOYERS: What the reason they give for not doing it?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: They ignore it. And nobody calls them on it.
BILL MOYERS: Well, where's Congress? Where's the press? Where--
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, where's the Pecora investigation?
BILL MOYERS: The what?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: The Pecora investigation. The Great Depression, we said, "Hey, we have to learn the facts. What caused this disaster, so that we can take steps, like pass the Glass-Steagall law, that will prevent future disasters?" Where's our investigation?
What would happen if after a plane crashes, we said, "Oh, we don't want to look in the past. We want to be forward looking. Many people might have been, you know, we don't want to pass blame. No. We have a nonpartisan, skilled inquiry. We spend lots of money on, get really bright people. And we find out, to the best of our ability, what caused every single major plane crash in America. And because of that, aviation has an extraordinarily good safety record. We ought to follow the same policies in the financial sphere. We have to find out what caused the disasters, or we will keep reliving them. And here, we've got a double tragedy. It isn't just that we are failing to learn from the mistakes of the past. We're failing to learn from the successes of the past.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: In the Savings and Loan debacle, we developed excellent ways for dealing with the frauds, and for dealing with the failed institutions. And for 15 years after the Savings and Loan crisis, didn't matter which party was in power, the U.S. Treasury Secretary would fly over to Tokyo and tell the Japanese, "You ought to do things the way we did in the Savings and Loan crisis, because it worked really well. Instead you're covering up the bank losses, because you know, you say you need confidence. And so, we have to lie to the people to create confidence. And it doesn't work. You will cause your recession to continue and continue." And the Japanese call it the lost decade. That was the result. So, now we get in trouble, and what do we do? We adopt the Japanese approach of lying about the assets. And you know what? It's working just as well as it did in Japan.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah. Are you saying that Timothy Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury, and others in the administration, with the banks, are engaged in a cover up to keep us from knowing what went wrong?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Absolutely, because they are scared to death. All right? They're scared to death of a collapse. They're afraid that if they admit the truth, that many of the large banks are insolvent. They think Americans are a bunch of cowards, and that we'll run screaming to the exits. And we won't rely on deposit insurance. And, by the way, you can rely on deposit insurance. And it's foolishness. All right? Now, it may be worse than that. You can impute more cynical motives. But I think they are sincerely just panicked about, "We just can't let the big banks fail." That's wrong.
BILL MOYERS: But what might happen, at this point, if in fact they keep from us the true health of the banks?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Well, then the banks will, as they did in Japan, either stay enormously weak, or Treasury will be forced to increasingly absurd giveaways of taxpayer money. We've seen how horrific AIG -- and remember, they kept secrets from everyone.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: What we're doing with -- no, Treasury and both administrations. The Bush administration and now the Obama administration kept secret from us what was being done with AIG. AIG was being used secretly to bail out favored banks like UBS and like Goldman Sachs. Secretary Paulson's firm, that he had come from being CEO. It got the largest amount of money. $12.9 billion. And they didn't want us to know that. And it was only Congressional pressure, and not Congressional pressure, by the way, on Geithner, but Congressional pressure on AIG.
Where Congress said, "We will not give you a single penny more unless we know who received the money." And, you know, when he was Treasury Secretary, Paulson created a recommendation group to tell Treasury what they ought to do with AIG. And he put Goldman Sachs on it.
BILL MOYERS: Even though Goldman Sachs had a big vested stake.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Massive stake. And even though he had just been CEO of Goldman Sachs before becoming Treasury Secretary. Now, in most stages in American history, that would be a scandal of such proportions that he wouldn't be allowed in civilized society.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, like a conflict of interest, it seems.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Massive conflict of interests.
BILL MOYERS: So, how did he get away with it?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: I don't know whether we've lost our capability of outrage. Or whether the cover up has been so successful that people just don't have the facts to react to it.
BILL MOYERS: Who's going to get the facts?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: We need some chairmen or chairwomen--
BILL MOYERS: In Congress.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: --in Congress, to hold the necessary hearings. And we can blast this out. But if you leave the failed CEOs in place, it isn't just that they're terrible business people, though they are. It isn't just that they lack integrity, though they do. Because they were engaged in these frauds. But they're not going to disclose the truth about the assets.
BILL MOYERS: And we have to know that, in order to know what?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: To know everything. To know who committed the frauds. Whose bonuses we should recover. How much the assets are worth. How much they should be sold for. Is the bank insolvent, such that we should resolve it in this way? It's the predicate, right? You need to know the facts to make intelligent decisions. And they're deliberately leaving in place the people that caused the problem, because they don't want the facts. And this is not new. The Reagan Administration's central priority, at all times, during the Savings and Loan crisis, was covering up the losses.
BILL MOYERS: So, you're saying that people in power, political power, and financial power, act in concert when their own behinds are in the ringer, right?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: That's right. And it's particularly a crisis that brings this out, because then the class of the banker says, "You've got to keep the information away from the public or everything will collapse. If they understand how bad it is, they'll run for the exits."
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, and this week in New York, at this conference, you described this as more than a financial crisis. You called it a moral crisis.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Because it is a fundamental lack of integrity. But also because, if you look back at crises, an economist who is also a presidential appointee, as a regulator in the Savings and Loan industry, right here in New York, Larry White, wrote a book about the Savings and Loan crisis. And he said, you know, one of the most interesting questions is why so few people engaged in fraud? Because objectively, you could have gotten away with it. But only about ten percent of the CEOs, engaged in fraud. So, 90 percent of them were restrained by ethics and integrity. So, far more than law or by F.B.I. agents, it's our integrity that often prevents the greatest abuses. And what we had in this crisis, instead of the Savings and Loan, is the most elite institutions in America engaging or facilitating fraud.
BILL MOYERS: This wound that you say has been inflicted on American life. The loss of worker's income. And security and pensions and future happened, because of the misconduct of a relatively few, very well-heeled people, in very well-decorated corporate suites, right?
BILL MOYERS: It was relatively a handful of people.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: And their ideologies, which swept away regulation. So, in the example, regulation means that cheaters don't prosper. So, instead of being bad for capitalism, it's what saves capitalism. "Honest purveyors prosper" is what we want. And you need regulation and law enforcement to be able to do this. The tragedy of this crisis is it didn't need to happen at all.
BILL MOYERS: When you wake in the middle of the night, thinking about your work, what do you make of that? What do you tell yourself?
WILLIAM K. BLACK: There's a saying that we took great comfort in. It's actually by the Dutch, who were fighting this impossible war for independence against what was then the most powerful nation in the world, Spain. And their motto was, "It is not necessary to hope in order to persevere."
Now, going forward, get rid of the people that have caused the problems. That's a pretty straightforward thing, as well. Why would we keep CEOs and CFOs and other senior officers, that caused the problems? That's facially nuts. That's our current system.
So stop that current system. We're hiding the losses, instead of trying to find out the real losses. Stop that, because you need good information to make good decisions, right? Follow what works instead of what's failed. Start appointing people who have records of success, instead of records of failure. That would be another nice place to start. There are lots of things we can do. Even today, as late as it is. Even though they've had a terrible start to the administration. They could change, and they could change within weeks. And by the way, the folks who are the better regulators, they paid their taxes. So, you can get them through the vetting process a lot quicker.
BILL MOYERS: William Black, thank you very much for being with me on the Journal.
WILLIAM K. BLACK: Thank you so much.

November 29, 2010

Popular Protest

Perhaps some of you have heard about all the protests going on in Germany, France and England this Fall. Recently English students stormed Tory headquarters protesting austerity measures like increased tuition. Last week tens of thousands of Germans managed to delay a train delivering radioactive waste to a nuclear dump near Gorleben, a small down just West of the former Iron Curtain. For three days the major news networks were filled with reports of people hanging themselves from ropes above train tracks or tying themselves with chains to rails and roads. The train travelled from La Hague, France and into Germany where it met hundreds protestors filling the streets, train stations and even climbing on the tracks to delay the train’s progress. The radioactive waste had to be transferred on to trucks for the last few miles. At a street intersection just short of the final destination Greenpeace activists blocked the road with a vehicle disguised as a beer delivery truck. They retrofitted the truck and bolted it to the asphalt. Activists sunk themselves into drying concrete.
In Stuttgart, Germany citizens have been going to the streets week for week to protest the construction of an underground railway station. For months there have been weekly rallies with upwards of 80,000 people. Demonstrations this size have not been seen in this conservative southern German town for decades. Opposition to the construction plans have arisen because of the questionable benefits to public transportation and the immense costs, upwards of 5 billion Euros or almost $7 billion.
In France this Fall there were massive, country-wide demonstrations against the proposed increase of the retirement age from 60 to 62 (in Germany it has been increased from 65 to 67). The French protests were not only aimed at the increased age of retirement. As in Stuttgart, Gorleben and London, the protests reflect a general frustration among the public that they are being ignored by a class of political leaders interested only in serving their most persistent and powerful constituencies. Despite the danger of hanging my neck out the window, I might suggest that the Tea Party in the US garners much of it’s support from similar frustrations.
Why does the public feel alienated from the political process? Probably because they are. The lack of public participation in the political process in the US is much worse than in Germany or France. In these countries the election process is not dominated by million-dollar television spots paid for by private donations. In Germany, for example, each party is given equal amount of time for television commercials. Campaigning is limited to only a few months and you do not need a war chest of many millions of dollars to get elected. I furthermore see the majority-rule system in the US as extremely undemocratic. In the states only the voters who voted for the majority candidate are represented in parliament. Everyone else is left out in the cold. In Germany a party needs only 5% of the popular vote to gain seats in local or national parliaments. Elections on Tuesdays and having to physically register to vote are further factors making democratic participation more difficult in the US.
Even though it is easier to vote and find representation in places like Germany and France, large sections of the population feel disenfranchised. When the German government recently decided to extend the life of the countries nuclear power plants, it was obvious that lobbyists from the plant’s operators had influenced decision making. More than 60% of the public opposes these extensions. The multi-billion dollar train station construction in Stuttgart is also opposed by a vast majority of the population. Some claim that real estate investors have been central in pushing the project despite public opposition.
Of course it’s nothing new that plutocracy to a large extent best defines US and European systems. The wave of protests in Europe this Fall are a sign that people’s voices are being heard. The lack of violence during the protests in Germany are a positive sign that voices of protest will not drown out by images of stone-throwing youth. Such images serve only to feed prejudices and belittle serious public concerns.
The protests in Stuttgart surrounding the train project “Stuttgart 21” have been so successful that the government and industry interests have been forced to sit together with citizen interests groups to hammer out a compromise. The weekly meetings are aired live on television and the internet. This is an example of moving decision-making from the closed-doors of parliament onto the open-doors of public debate.