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Originally published May 24, 2014 at 8:02 PM | Page modified May 27, 2014 at 11:49 AM

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Geithner won the battle but never waged the war

More thoughts on former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who’s touring the nation to promote his very good, new book “Stress Test.”


Special to The Seattle Times

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Much, perhaps too much, has been written about Timothy Geithner and his very good, new book, “Stress Test.” But I hope you’ll allow one more assessment.

The former Treasury secretary appeared this month before 469 people at Seattle Arts & Lectures. It was an unscripted event, with me as Geithner’s interlocutor.

The man we heard from was much like the one in the book: intelligent, self-effacing, witty, candid and very aware of the moral dilemma of appearing to save the big banks at the expense of ordinary Americans. Yes, the TARP bailout has been repaid and is on track to give taxpayers a profit.

He was genially on message. A few moments stood out. For example, when I pressed him on the role of deregulation and the dogma of ”self-policing” free markets helping to cause the financial meltdown, he parried with an observation about how Americans are always inventing new things.

Including, apparently, dangerous and little-understood collateralized debt obligations.

As author and Wall Street watcher Michael Lewis wrote of the book, “The story Geithner goes on to tell blames everyone and no one. The crisis he describes might just as well have been an act of God. Basically no one noticed what was happening inside the financial system until after it happened.”

Geithner talked about those who wanted to let Wall Street “burn.” By his lights, doing so would have destroyed Main Street, too. The crisis was made worse, he said, because it was allowed “to burn too long.”

This is not a theoretical counterfactual.

After the 1929 stock market crash, Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon held a somewhat similar view: Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.

The result, even halfway implemented against a reluctant Hoover, was a contraction that became the Great Depression.

In 2009, the United States stood on an even worse precipice. Preventing the total collapse of the global financial system was necessary.

Many Americans realized this was necessary, even if it appeared to be “rewarding the arsonists,” as Geithner put it.

But they also expected a rigorous overhaul that would reverse the deregulation punctuated by the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. That Depression-era law separated risky investment banking from federally insured commercial banking and kept America safe for more than 60 years.

The fix never really happened.

Instead of a 21st-century Glass-Steagall, we got the Dodd-Frank bill, which has been gutted by industry lobbyists.

No major figure behind the costliest scandal in modern history faced criminal prosecution. No bankster went to prison.

No big bank was broken up, not even ones fined billions in settlements with the government. They got bigger.

Meanwhile, real median household income in 2012 was where it stood in 1989. Inequality is as bad as the Gilded Age. The unemployment crisis endures.

It is exceedingly rare when a Treasury secretary can be separated from the president he serves.

Mellon was unusual, a business titan with his own power base. Geithner was a career technocrat, a protégé of former Treasury secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, men who helped lead the bipartisan deregulation of finance.

Cathy O’Neil, who blogs as Mathbabe, put it this way in an acid assessment: “Tim Geithner was a perfect product of the system. He was an effect, not a cause.”

No wonder he sees solutions in stress tests and higher capital requirements instead of fundamentally rebuilding a toxic arrangement that encourages criminality, rewards sociopaths, provides less and less benefit to society and breeds economic calamities. It is overly complex. It has the power, thanks to money and the Supreme Court, to bend Congress to its will.

Ultimately it was President Obama who made the decision in 2009 to emphasize saving the financial system that had caused the Great Recession, maintaining consistency with the Bush administration. Although Obama came from humble beginnings, he ascended into the same elite that Geithner, Rubin, Summers and the big bankers inhabit, imbibed the same establishment consensus.

No wonder the Obama administration gave less attention to helping desperate homeowners, crafting a larger and better-targeted stimulus and emphasizing policies for sustained job creation. To be fair, he faced a united Republican opposition in Congress.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s newly created Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. sent examiners around the country, forgiving loans at the stroke of a pen. The New Deal was very focused on relieving suffering of average citizens and providing jobs.

The wealthy Roosevelt was considered a “traitor to his class” for the New Deal. Less remembered is that when America had a sizable hard left, many of its members never forgave FDR for saving capitalism.

Geithner writes, “We did save the economy. But we lost the country doing it.”

Yes. Obama, Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke averted a second Great Depression, an achievement that will take years of cooling passions to realize. But they also preserved a perverted capitalist system and continued the damage to the legitimacy of American institutions.

I discussed all this with one of my regular readers, who worked as a bank economist for 30-plus years.

“Do I blame Geithner?” he said. “In some sense for sure, in that he saved equity positions in those (financial) companies. Personal wealth was saved is all, his friends mostly. No system was saved. There is no system. It’s an asset bubble with nothing behind it. No jobs, no nothing. The whole damn thing is broken.”

You may reach Jon Talton at jtalton@seattletimes.com



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About Jon Talton

Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
jtalton@seattletimes.com

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