By James Kwak
The Big Short is a good story and provides some illuminating lessons about Wall Street. Lewis doesn’t really come out and say what he thinks about Wall Street; he lets his characters do that for him. But in his recent interview with Christopher Lydon, he really lets loose. Here are some direct quotations.
Lewis: “The people who were responsible for orchestrating the crisis, because they’re on top and they’re in the middle of it, they’re the only ones who are sort of fluent in the language of it. I mean, who’s to question Tim Geithner, the secretary of the treasury, about this or that, because he’s the only with the information . . . even though he is clearly culpable in what happened.”
Lydon: “Not to mention Larry Summers and Bob Rubin and all the other architects of the deregulation. They’re still calling the shots in a new administration after a change of party management. It’s unreal.”
Lewis: “It is unreal, because basically all of the people you mentioned all swallowed a general view of Wall Street, which was that it was a useful and worthy master class, that these people basically knew what they were doing and should be left to do whatever they wanted to do. And they were totally wrong about that. Not only did they not know what they were doing, but the consequences of not knowing what they were doing were catastrophic for the rest of us. It was not just not useful; it was destructive. We live in a society where the people who have squandered the most wealth have been paying themselves the most, and failure has been rewarded in the most spectacular ways, and instead of saying we really should just wipe out the system and start fresh in some way, there is a sort of instinct to just tinker with what exists and not fiddle with the structure. And I don’t know if that’s going to work. When you look at what Alan Greenspan did, or what Larry Summers did, or what Bob Rubin did, there are individual mistakes they made, like for example not regulating the credit default swap market, preventing that from happening. But the broader problem is just the air they breathe. The broader problem is just the sense they all seem to have that what’s good for Goldman Sachs is good for America.”
Lewis: “The question is how does Washington move away from those institutions and make decisions that are in the public interest without regard for the welfare of these institutions. It’s a hard question because . . . this is the problem. Essentially the public and their representatives have been buffaloed into thinking that this subject — financial regulation, structure of Wall Street — is too complicated for amateurs. That the only people who are qualified to pronounce on this are people who are in it. And there are very very few people who aren’t in it in some way who have the nerve to stand up and fight it. . . .
“The elected representatives look at the financial system, I’m sure, and they think, it’s too complicated for me to understand, I’m going to be quickly exposed as a know-nothing if I take the lead on regulation, and in the bargain I’m going to miss out on all these campaign contributions from the financial industry because I’ll alienate them.”
Lewis, on Barack Obama: “He’s been captured by his banker, just like the ordinary American’s captured by their stockbroker. He’s been buffaloed by the complexity of it all, he doesn’t have time to sort it out for himself, and he has to trust the people who seem to know. The alternative is for him to set off on his own in a quixotic quest to reform the financial system without having any experience of the system. It’s sort of like the presidential version of regulatory capture, that he is at the mercy of the people who really don’t have probably his long-term best interests at heart but who seem to know what they’re talking about.”