David Stockman On "The Great Deformation" And The US Treasury As "The M&A Department Of Goldman Sachs"

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From David Stockman's upcoming book The Great Deformation: The Corruption Of Capitalism In America

The Great Deformation

The fiscal cliff is permanent and insurmountable. It stands at the edge of a $20 trillion abyss of deficits over the next decade. And this estimation is conservative, based on sober economic assumptions and the dug-in tax and spending positions of the two parties, both powerfully abetted by lobbies and special interests which fight for every paragraph of loophole ridden tax code and each line of a grossly bloated budget.

Fiscal cliffs as far as the eye can see are the deeply troubling outcome of the Great Deformation. They are the result of capture of the state, especially its central bank, the Federal Reserve, by crony capitalist forces deeply inimical to free markets and democracy.

Why we are mired in this virtually unsolvable problem is the reason I wrote this book. It originated in my being flabbergasted when the Republican White House in September 2008 proposed the $700 billion TARP bailout of Wall Street. When the courageous House Republicans who voted it down were forced to walk the plank a second time in betrayal of their principled stand, my sense of disbelief turned into a not-inconsiderable outrage. Likewise, I was shocked to read of the blatant deal making, bribing, and bullying of the troubled big banks being conducted out of the treasury secretary’s office, as if it were the M&A department of Goldman Sachs.

By the end of the Bush administration it was starkly apparent that a Republican White House had wantonly trashed all the old-time fiscal rules, and it had been done by political neophytes: Hank Paulson and his posse of eager-beaver Goldman bankers. But I had been at the center of the most intense fiscal battle of modern times during the early Reagan era and had learned something they apparently hadn’t: that the Congress is made up of representatives from 435 mini-principalities and duchies, and they reason by precedent above all else. Once Wall Street, AIG, and GM were bailed out, the state would have no boundaries: the public purse would be fair game for all.

I found this alarming in view of the long ago Reagan-era battle of the budget that had ended in dismal failure. Notwithstanding decades of Republican speech making about Ronald Reagan’s rebuke to “big government,” it never happened. In the interim, Republican administrations whose mantra was “smaller government” only made Big Government more corpulent, so plainly by 2008 there was no fiscal headroom left at all to plunge into “bailout nation.”

After I left the White House in 1985 I wrote a youthful screed, The Triumph of Politics, decrying Republican hypocrisy about the evils of deficit finance. But I had also tried to accomplish something more constructive: to systematically call the roll of the spending cuts not made by Ronald Reagan, and thereby document that almost nobody was willing to challenge the core components that comprise Big Government.

Thus, the giant social insurance programs of Medicare and Social Security had barely been scratched; means-tested entitlements had been modestly
reformed but had saved only small change because there weren’t so many welfare queens after all; farm subsidies and veterans’ benefits had not been cut because these were GOP constituencies; and the Education Department had emerged standing tall because middle-class families demanded their student loans and grants. In all, Ronald Reagan had left the “welfare state” barely one-half of 1 percent of GDP smaller than Jimmy Carter’s, and added a massive structural deficit to boot.

But that was twenty-five years ago, and whatever fiscal rectitude had existed among the Republican congressional elders at the time had long since disappeared. During the eight years of George W. Bush, the GOP had pivoted from spending cuts not made to a spending spree not seen since the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson—adopting Medicare prescription drug benefits, massive growth in education spending, the monstrosity of the Homeland Security Department, sky-high farm subsidies, and pork-barrel excess everywhere. Worse still, the defense budget had doubled and the so-called Republican brand had been reduced to tax cutting for any reason and in whatever form the lobbies of K Street could concoct. George W. Bush thus left the White House trailed by previously unthinkable bailouts and a deluge of red ink which would reach $1.2 trillion and 10 percent of GDP, even before the Obama stimulus. What was truly galling, however, was that the Wall Street satrap occupying the third floor of the Treasury Building had talked the hapless Bush into a $150 billion one-time tax rebate to “stimulate” the economy.

I had long since parted ways with the supply-siders and had left the White House with my admiration for President Reagan considerably dulled by his obdurate inflexibility on the runaway defense buildup, and his refusal to acknowledge that the giant deficits which emerged in the 1980s were his responsibility, not Jimmy Carter’s. But despite all this, I thought that the Paulson tax rebate was a sharp slap in the Gipper’s face. President Reagan’s great accomplishment had been the burial of the Keynesian predicate: the notion that Washington could create economic growth and wealth by borrowing money and passing it out to consumers so they would buy more shoes and soda pop.

Now Paulson was throwing even that overboard. Didn’t the whirling dervish from Goldman know that once upon a time all the young men and women in Ronald Reagan’s crusade, and most especially the father of supply side, Jack Kemp, had ridiculed the very tax rebate that he peddled to Nancy Pelosi in February 2008 as Jimmy Carter’s $50 per family folly? At length, I saw the light, and it had nothing to do with Paulson’s apparent illiteracy on the precepts of sound fiscal policy. The bailouts, the Fed’s frenzied money printing, the embrace of primitive Keynesian tax stimulus by a Republican White House amounted to something terrible: a de facto coup d’état by Wall Street, resulting in Washington’s embrace of any expedient necessary to keep the financial bubble going—and no matter how offensive it was to every historic principle of free markets, sound money, and fiscal rectitude.