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Weekly Audit: The global economic crisis

Over the past thirty years, Wall Street has waged a steady war against governments around the globe, convincing policymakers of various ideological stripes that whatever raises profits for bankers and traders will be good for the rest of society. It’s a very simple and appealing portrait of how the world works. Unfortunately, it’s completely wrong.

Profiting from hunger

In an interview with AlterNet’s Terrence McNally, economic luminary Raj Patel explains the connection between widespread global poverty and wild Wall Street profits. Markets are defined by a set of rules—if those rules completely disregard social welfare, then the participants in those markets will ignore them as well. When traders can make a quick buck speculating on the price of rice, they will, even if that speculation drives up the price of a basic necessity and makes people go hungry.

We’ve known this for a long time, but as Patel illustrates, governments have allowed financial bigwigs to rewrite the basic rules of the road so that Wall Street can extract profits from anything—even hunger. That process created several crises in the developing world over the past few decades, and has now ravaged the economies of the United States and Europe. As Patel notes:

By basically gaming the system with regulations — that they authored — which encouraged a certain kind of playing fast and loose with the numbers, it was possible through some creative accounting for huge amounts of systematic risk to be kicked off into the future and ignored. And of course when the catastrophic risk was realized, everyone ran for the hills and started demanding public support.

Financial turmoil in Greece

This political sleight-of-hand is demonstrated by the looming fiscal crisis in Greece. As Richard Parker explains for The Nation, Goldman Sachs colluded with prior Greek administrations to hide the nation’s fiscal situation from both its own citizens and investors (Parker is an adviser to current Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou). Goldman was not interested in fair play—it was interested in making money off of the Greek government in any way it could. If that meant actively sabotaging the market by hiding important information, well, Goldman didn’t care.

First Greece, then …

Now that this budget façade has been stripped away, Goldman and other investors are now profiting from making things very difficult for Greece.  As Matthew Yglesias explains for The American Prospect, the rational, profit-maximizing choices of investors are now actively helping to drive Greece into a default that hurts everyone:

When Greece starts looking shaky, the interest rate it needs to pay on its deficit goes up, which makes the country look even shakier. This cycle can push a vulnerable country into a default situation.

Various Greek administrations clearly bear significant responsibility for the situation. Nobody forced them to get in bed with Goldman Sachs, just as nobody forced U.S. administrations to gut our financial regulatory system. But the problem in Greece is not just a problem for a single Mediterranean nation—there is very real risk that the investor “unease” could spread to Portugal, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and by extension the European Union and the global economy. The bonuses at Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase this year were not a sign of renewed strength in the global economy.

Community Security Clubs to the rescue

So if Wall Street can’t save us, what can? Our communities could play a significant role, as Andrée Collier Zaleska explains for Yes! Magazine. Zaleska profiles Common Security Clubs in Portland, Boston and Fort Lauderdale to show how people hit hard by the economic downturn are banding together to make ends meet, and organizing for political action.

“[Jared] Gardner, a busy organizer in Portland, launched four CSCs in his church, two of which were comprised almost entirely of unemployed people. By the time his own group had met five times, they were planning tours of local co-housing projects, organizing to fight locally for progressive taxation, and wondering how to bring the rest of their church into the time bank they had created.”

Markets are supposed to serve human needs, not the other way around. But Wall Street isn’t going to give up its stranglehold on the U.S. political process for nothing. While community-driven efforts are a good start, we need much larger actions and reform to restore balance to the global economy.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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