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Weekly Audit: Wall Street goes to the movies

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Last week, the U.S. Senate rejected a plan that would have broken up the nation’s six largest banks firms into firms that could fail without wreaking havoc on the economy. Even though the defeat reinforces Wall Street’s political dominance, there is still room for a handful of other useful reforms, like banning banks from gambling with taxpayer money and protecting consumers from banker abuses. After looting our houses, banks are now pushing for the ability to bet on movie box-office receipts, and will keep trying to financialize anything they can unless Congress acts.

Wall Street calls the shots

Writing for The Nation, John Nichols details last week’s Capitol Hill damage. Today’s financial oligarchy, in which a handful of bigwig bankers and their lobbyists are able to write regulations and evade rules they don’t like, will still be in place after the Wall Street reform bill is passed. The lesson is clear, as Nichols notes:

Whatever the final form of federal financial services reform legislation, one thing is now certain: The biggest of the big banks will still be calling the shots.

Still worth fighting for

As I emphasize for AlterNet, Congress has made a terrible mistake here, but there is still room for reform. It took President Franklin Delano Roosevelt seven years to enact his New Deal banking laws. It took even longer to reshape public opinion of monopolies when President Theodore Roosevelt took on Corporate America in the early 1900s.

What’s still worth fighting for? We have to curb the derivatives market—the multi-trillion-dollar casino that destroyed AIG. We have to impose a strong version of the Volcker Rule, which would ban banks from engaging in speculative trading for their own accounts. We have to change the way the Federal Reserve does business and force the government’s most secretive bailout engine to operate in the open. And we have to establish a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency to ensure that the horrific subprime mortgage abuses are not repeated.

As Nomi Prins details for The American Prospect, the current reform bill will not effectively deal with the dangers posed by hedge funds and private equity firms—companies that partnered with banks to blow up the economy through investments in subprime mortgages. That means that whatever happens with the current bill, Congress must again take action next year to rein in other financial sector excesses.

The derivatives casino at the movies

As Nick Baumann demonstrates for Mother Jones, banks are doing everything they can to gobble up other productive elements of the economy. The economy crashed in 2008 in large part because banks had used the derivatives market to place trillions of dollars in speculative bets on the housing market. This wasn’t lending, it was pure gambling: Instead of using poker chips, bankers placed their bets with derivatives. But, as Baumann emphasizes, banks are now looking to expand the sort of thing they can make derivatives gambles with. The latest proposal is to allow banks to bet on the box office success of movies. That’s right, banks would be gambling on movies.

Hollywood may be shallow, but it isn’t stupid. It doesn’t want to see the banking industry repeat its destructive looting of the housing industry on the movie business, and is pushing hard to ban banks from betting on movies. But we can’t count on every industry having a powerful lobby group to counter every assault from the banking system.

Taking stock in schools

Consider the unsettling report by Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now!. Gonzales details how big banks gamed the charter school system to score huge profits while simultaneously saddling taxpayers with massive debts that make teaching kids supremely difficult. By exploiting multiple federal tax credits, banks that invest in charter schools have been able to double their money in seven years—no small feat in the investing world—while schools have seen their rents skyrocket. One school in Albany, N.Y. saw its rent jump from $170,000 to $500,000 in a single year.

About that unemployment rate…

It’s not like public schools are flush with cash right now. The $330,000 increase in rent could pay the salaries of more than a few teachers. As the recession sparked by big bank excess grinds on, even the good news is pretty hard to swallow. As David Moberg emphasizes for Working In These Times, the economy added 290,000 jobs in April, but the unemployment rate actually climbed from 9.7 percent to 9.9 percent in March. That’s because the unemployment rate only counts workers who are actively seeking a job—if you want a job but haven’t found one for so long that you give up, you’re not technically “unemployed.” All of those “new” workers are driving the official figures up.

In other words, it’s still rough out there. And likely to stay rough as state governments try to deal with the lost tax revenue from plunging home values and mass layoffs. Nearly half of all unemployed people in the U.S. have been out of a job for six months or more. And while we’d be much worse off without Obama’s economic stimulus package, that percentage is likely to grow this year, Moberg notes.

This is what unrestrained banking behemoths do. They book big profits and bonuses for themselves, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the economy. Congress absolutely must impose serious financial reform this year. After the November election, breaking up the banks must once again be on the agenda when Congress considers the future fate of hedge funds, private equity firms, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. If we don’t rein in Wall Street, banks will continue to wreak havoc on our homes, our jobs and even our schools. Congress must act.

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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