A Christmas Message From America’s Rich

24/12/2011

Matt Taibbi (Taibblog) for Rolling Stone, 22 December 2011 (via Daring Fireball):

It seems America’s bankers are tired of all the abuse. They’ve decided to speak out.

True, they’re doing it from behind the ropeline, in front of friendly crowds at industry conferences and country clubs, meaning they don’t have to look the rest of America in the eye when they call us all imbeciles and complain that they shouldn’t have to apologize for being so successful.

But while they haven’t yet deigned to talk to protesting America face to face, they are willing to scribble out some complaints on notes and send them downstairs on silver trays. Courtesy of a remarkable story by Max Abelson at Bloomberg, we now get to hear some of those choice comments.

Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, for instance, is not worried about OWS:

“Who gives a crap about some imbecile?” Marcus said. “Are you kidding me?”

Former New York gurbernatorial candidate Tom Golisano, the billionaire owner of the billing firm Paychex, offered his wisdom while his half-his-age tennis champion girlfriend hung on his arm:

“If I hear a politician use the term ‘paying your fair share’ one more time, I’m going to vomit,” said Golisano, who turned 70 last month, celebrating the birthday with girlfriend Monica Seles, the former tennis star who won nine Grand Slam singles titles.

Then there’s Leon Cooperman, the former chief of Goldman Sachs’s money-management unit, who said he was urged to speak out by his fellow golfers. His message was a version of Wall Street’s increasingly popular If-you-people-want-a-job, then-you’ll-shut-the-fuck-up rhetorical line:

Cooperman, 68, said in an interview that he can’t walk through the dining room of St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, Florida, without being thanked for speaking up. At least four people expressed their gratitude on Dec. 5 while he was eating an egg-white omelet, he said.

“You’ll get more out of me,” the billionaire said, “if you treat me with respect.”

Finally, there is this from Blackstone CEO Steven Schwartzman:

Asked if he were willing to pay more taxes in a Nov. 30 interview with Bloomberg Television, Blackstone Group LP CEO Stephen Schwarzman spoke about lower-income U.S. families who pay no income tax.

“You have to have skin in the game,” said Schwarzman, 64. “I’m not saying how much people should do. But we should all be part of the system.”

There are obviously a great many things that one could say about this remarkable collection of quotes. One could even, if one wanted, simply savor them alone, without commentary, like lumps of fresh caviar, or raw oysters.

But out of Abelson’s collection of doleful woe-is-us complaints from the offended rich, the one that deserves the most attention is Schwarzman’s line about lower-income folks lacking “skin in the game.” This incredible statement gets right to the heart of why these people suck.

Why? It’s not because Schwarzman is factually wrong about lower-income people having no “skin in the game,” ignoring the fact that everyone pays sales taxes, and most everyone pays payroll taxes, and of course there are property taxes for even the lowliest subprime mortgage holders, and so on.

It’s not even because Schwarzman probably himself pays close to zero in income tax—as a private equity chief, he doesn’t pay income tax but tax on carried interest, which carries a maximum 15% tax rate, half the rate of a New York City firefighter.

The real issue has to do with the context of Schwarzman’s quote. The Blackstone billionaire, remember, is one of the more uniquely abhorrent, self-congratulating jerks in the entire world—a man who famously symbolized the excesses of the crisis era when, just as the rest of America was heading into a recession, he threw himself a $5 million birthday party, featuring private performances by Rod Stewart and Patti Labelle, to celebrate an IPO that made him $677 million in a matter of days (within a year, incidentally, the investors who bought that stock would lose three-fourths of their investments).

So that IPO birthday boy is now standing up and insisting, with a straight face, that America’s problem is that compared to taxpaying billionaires like himself, poor people are not invested enough in our society’s future. Apparently, we’d all be in much better shape if the poor were as motivated as Steven Schwarzman is to make America a better place.

But it seems to me that if you’re broke enough that you’re not paying any income tax, you’ve got nothing but skin in the game. You’ve got it all riding on how well America works.

You can’t afford private security: you need to depend on the police. You can’t afford private health care: Medicare is all you have. You get arrested, you’re not hiring Davis, Polk to get you out of jail: you rely on a public defender to negotiate a court system you’d better pray deals with everyone from the same deck. And you can’t hire landscapers to manicure your lawn and trim your trees: you need the garbage man to come on time and you need the city to patch the potholes in your street.

And in the bigger picture, of course, you need the state and the private sector both to be functioning well enough to provide you with regular work, and a safe place to raise your children, and clean water and clean air.

The entire ethos of modern Wall Street, on the other hand, is complete indifference to all of these matters. The very rich on today’s Wall Street are now so rich that they buy their own social infrastructure. They hire private security, they live on gated mansions on islands and other tax havens, and most notably, they buy their own justice and their own government.

An ordinary person who has a problem that needs fixing puts a letter in the mail to his congressman and sends it to stand in a line in some DC mailroom with thousands of others, waiting for a response.

But citizens of the stateless archipelago where people like Schwarzman live spend millions a year lobbying and donating to political campaigns so that they can jump the line. They don’t need to make sure the government is fulfilling its customer-service obligations, because they buy special access to the government, and get the special service and the metaphorical comped bottle of VIP-room Cristal afforded to select customers.

Want to lower the capital reserve requirements for investment banks? Then-Goldman CEO Hank Paulson takes a meeting with SEC chief Bill Donaldson, and gets it done. Want to kill an attempt to erase the carried interest tax break? Guys like Schwarzman, and Apollo’s Leon Black, and Carlyle’s David Rubenstein, they just show up in Washington at Max Baucus’s doorstep, and they get it killed.

Some of these people take that VIP-room idea a step further. J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon—the man the New York Times once called “Obama’s favorite banker”—had an excellent method of guaranteeing that the Federal Reserve system’s doors would always be open to him. What he did was, he served as the Chairman of the Board of the New York Fed.

And in 2008, in that moonlighting capacity, he orchestrated a deal in which the Fed provided $29 billion in assistance to help his own bank, Chase, buy up the teetering investment firm Bear Stearns. You read that right: Jamie Dimon helped give himself a bailout. Who needs to worry about good government, when you are the government?

Dimon, incidentally, is another one of those bankers who’s complaining now about the unfair criticism. “Acting like everyone who’s been successful is bad and because you’re rich you’re bad, I don’t understand it,” he recently said, at an investor’s conference.

Hmm. Is Dimon right? Do people hate him just because he’s rich and successful? That really would be unfair. Maybe we should ask the people of Jefferson County, Alabama, what they think.

That particular locality is now in bankruptcy proceedings primarily because Dimon’s bank, Chase, used middlemen to bribe local officials—literally bribe, with cash and watches and new suits—to sign on to a series of onerous interest-rate swap deals that vastly expanded the county’s debt burden.

Essentially, Jamie Dimon handed Birmingham, Alabama a Chase credit card and then bribed its local officials to run up a gigantic balance, leaving future residents and those residents’ children with the bill. As a result, the citizens of Jefferson County will now be making payments to Chase until the end of time.

Do you think Jamie Dimon would have done that deal if he lived in Jefferson County? Put it this way: if he was trying to support two kids on $30,000 a year, and lived in a Birmingham neighborhood full of people in the same boat, would he sign off on a deal that jacked up everyone’s sewer bills 400% for the next thirty years?

Doubtful. But then again, people like Jamie Dimon aren’t really citizens of any country. They live in their own gated archipelago, and the rest of the world is a dumping ground.

Just look at how Chase behaved in Greece, for example.

Having seen how well interest-rate swaps worked for Jefferson County, Alabama, Chase “helped” Greece mask its debt problem for years by selling a similar series of swaps to the Greek government. The bank then turned around and worked with banks like Goldman, Sachs to create a thing called the iTraxx SovX Western Europe index, which allowed investors to bet against Greek debt.

In other words, Chase knowingly larded up the nation of Greece with a crippling future debt burden, then turned around and helped the world bet against Greek debt.

Does a citizen of Greece do that deal? Forget that: does a human being do that deal?

Operations like the Greek swap/short index maneuver were easy money for banks like Goldman and Chase—hell, it’s a no-lose play, like cutting a car’s brake lines and then betting on the driver to crash—but they helped create the monstrous European debt problem that this very minute is threatening to send the entire world economy into collapse, which would result in who knows what horrors. At minimum, millions might lose their jobs and benefits and homes. Millions more will be ruined financially.

But why should Chase and Goldman care what happens to those people? Do they have any skin in that game?

Of course not. We’re talking about banks that not only didn’t warn the citizens of Greece about their future debt disaster, they actively traded on that information, to make money for themselves.

People like Dimon, and Schwarzman, and John Paulson, and all of the rest of them who think the “imbeciles” on the streets are simply full of reasonless class anger, they don’t get it. Nobody hates them for being successful. And not that this needs repeating, but nobody even minds that they are rich.

What makes people furious is that they have stopped being citizens.

Most of us 99-percenters couldn’t even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors. It’s called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don’t do them, because, well, we live here. Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India. They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets. They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest. Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

Nobody with real skin in the game, who had any kind of stake in our collective future, would do any of those things. Or, if a person did do those things, you’d at least expect him to have enough shame not to whine to a Bloomberg reporter when the rest of us complained about it.

But these people don’t have shame. What they have, in the place where most of us have shame, are extra sets of balls. Just listen to Cooperman, the former Goldman exec from that country club in Boca. According to Cooperman, the rich do contribute to society:

Capitalists “are not the scourge that they are too often made out to be” and the wealthy aren’t “a monolithic, selfish and unfeeling lot,” Cooperman wrote. They make products that “fill store shelves at Christmas…”

Unbelievable. Merry Christmas, bankers. And good luck getting that message out.

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“Dear Jamie Dimon,” by Joshua M. Brown, financial advisor, for The Reformed Broker, 20 December 2011:

Dear Jamie Dimon,

I hope this note finds you well.

I am writing to profess my utter disbelief at how little you seem to understand the current mood of the nation. In a story at Bloomberg today, you and a handful of fellow banker and billionaire “job creators” were quoted as believing that the horrific sentiment directed toward you from virtually all corners of America had something to do with how much money you had. I’d like to take a moment to disabuse you of this foolishness.

America is different than almost every other place on earth in that its citizenry reveres the wealthy and we are raised to believe that we can all one day join the ranks of the rich. The lack of a caste system or visible rungs of society’s ladder is what separates our empire from so many fallen empires throughout history. In a nation bereft of royalty by virtue of its republican birth, the American people have done what any other resourceful people would do—we’ve created our own royalty and our royalty is the 1%. Not only do we not “hate the rich” as you and other em-bubbled plutocrats have postulated, in point of fact, we love them. We worship our rich to the point of obsession. The highest-rated television shows uniformly feature the unimaginably fabulous families of celebrities not to mention the housewives (real or otherwise) of the rich. We don’t care what color they are or what religion they practice or where in the country they live or what channel their show is on—if they’re rich, we are watching.

When Derek Jeter was toyed with by the New York Yankees when it came time for him to renew his next hundred million dollar contract, the people empathized with Derek Jeter. Sure, this disagreement essentially took place between one of the wealthiest organizations in the country and one of the wealthiest private citizens—but we rooted for Jeter to get his money. Nobody begrudged him a penny of it or wanted a piece of it or decried the fact that he was luckier than the rest of us. In the American psyche, Jeter was one of the good guys who was deservedly successful. He was one of us and an example of hard work paying off.

Likewise, when Steve Jobs died, he did so with more money than you or any of your “job alliance” buddies—ten times more than most of you, in fact. And upon his death the entire nation went into mourning. We set up makeshift shrines to his brilliance in front of Apple stores from coast to coast. His biography flew off the shelves and people bought Apple products and stock shares in his honor and in his memory. Does that strike you as the action of a populace that hates success?

No, Jamie, it is not that Americans hate successful people or the wealthy. In fact, it is just the opposite. We love the success stories in our midst and it is a distinctly American trait to believe that we can all follow in the footsteps of the elite, even though so few of us ever actually do.

So, no, we don’t hate the rich. What we hate are the predators.

What we hate are the people who we view as having found their success as a consequence of the damage their activities have done to our country. What we hate are those who take and give nothing back in the form of innovation, convenience, entertainment or scientific progress. We hate those who’ve exploited political relationships and stupidity to rake in even more of the nation’s wealth while simultaneously driving the potential for success further away from the grasp of everyone else.

Here in New York, we hated watching real estate and financial services elitists drive up the prices of everything from affordable apartments to martinis in midtown with the reckless speculation that would eventually lead to mass layoffs, rampant joblessness and the wreckage of so many retirement dreams. No one ever asked the rest of us if we minded, it just happened. I’m sure people across the country can tell similar stories.

So please, do us all a favor and come to the realization that the loathing you feel from your fellow Americans has nothing to do with your “success” or your “wealth” and it has everything to do with the fact that your wealth and success have come at a cost to the rest of us. No one wants your money or opportunities, what they want is the same chance that their parents had to attain these things for themselves. You are viewed, and rightfully so, as part of the machine that has removed this chance for many—and that is what they hate.

America hates unjustified privilege, it hates an unfair playing field and crony capitalism without the threat of bankruptcy, it hates privatized gains and socialized losses, it hates rule changes that benefit the few at the expense of the many and it hates people who have been bailed out and don’t display even the slightest bit of remorse or humbleness in the presence of so much suffering in the aftermath.

Nobody hates your right to make money, Jamie. They hate how you and certain others have made it.

Don’t be confused on this score for a moment longer.

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