Writing recently in The Financial Times, the renowned novelist Margaret Atwood nailed the lasting effects of the recent – and some would say continuing – global financial crisis. “Those at the top were irresponsible and greedy,” she wrote; consequently and with good reason, very few people now trust our banking elite or the system they operate. Even Cam Fine, president of Independent Community Bankers of America, is now calling for the country’s largest banks to be broken up.
But the distrust goes deeper and further, just as Ms. Atwood implies. Many people understand perfectly well that the government let the bankers take excessive risk. There was a high degree of group think among prominent officials in the United States and top banking executives in the run-up to the crisis of 2008. As chief economist at the International Monetary Fund from March 2007 through August 2008, I observed some of this first hand.
And politicians are also tarnished. They appointed the officials who failed to regulate effectively. And in 2007-8 the politicians decided to save the big banks – and most of their managers, boards of directors and shareholders – both under President George W. Bush and under President Obama. Now attention turns toward the federal government’s fiscal problems, including the complicated mess that is our tax system. Politicians say they want “tax reform,” but can you trust them to do this in a responsible manner, without falling captive to particular special interests or to otherwise undermine the general social interest?