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Robert Reich: Why Obama Should Be Attacking Casino Capitalism

May 23, 2012

Are the recent controversies surrounding JPMorgan Chase and Bain Capital isolated incidents, or symptomatic of a single, larger problem?


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Image from Flickr via Thomas Hawk

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

I wish President Obama would draw the obvious connection between Bain Capital and JPMorgan Chase.

That way, his so-called “attack” on private equity is neither a personal attack on Mitt Romney nor a generalized attack on American business.

It’s an attack on a particular kind of capitalism that Romney and JPMorgan both practice: Using other peoples’ money to make big bets which, if they go wrong, can wreak havoc on the economy.

It’s the substitution of casino capitalism for real capitalism, the dominance of the betting parlor over the real business of America, financial innovation rather than product innovation.

It’s been terrible for the American economy and for our democracy.

It’s also why Obama has to come out swinging about JPMorgan. The JPMorgan Chase debacle would have been prevented if the Volcker Rule were sufficiently strict, prohibiting banks from using commercial deposits to make bets except very specific offsetting bets (hedges) on narrow classes of trades.

But Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan have been lobbying like mad to loosen the Volcker Rule and widen that exception to include the very kind of reckless bets JPMorgan made. And they’re still at it, as evidenced by Dimon’s current claim that the rule that eventually emerges would allow those bets.

[T]he private equity industry has huge political clout, which is why these tax preferences remain.

As a practical matter, the Volcker Rule is hopeless. It was intended to be Glass-Steagall lite—a more nuanced version of the original Depression-era law that separated commercial from investment banking. But JPMorgan has proven that any nuance—any exception—will be stretched beyond recognition by the big banks.

So much money can be made when these bets turn out well that the big banks will stop at nothing to keep the spigot open.

There’s no alternative but to resurrect Glass-Steagall as a whole. Even then, the biggest banks are still too big to fail, or to regulate. We also need to heed the recent advice of the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve and break them up.

At the same time, there’s no point to the “carried interest” loophole that allows private-equity managers like Mitt Romney to treat their incomes as capital gains, taxed at only 15 percent, when they’ve risked no money of their own.

If private equity were good for America it wouldn’t need this, or the other tax preference it depends on, elevating debt over equity. But the private equity industry has huge political clout, which is why these tax preferences remain.

Get it? Bain Capital and JPMorgan are parts of the same problem. The President should be leading the charge against both.

Author Image

Robert B. Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future; The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, Beyond Outrage. His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at www.robertreich.org.

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