Ten years on

If, like me, you see the events of 2016 as the long-delayed democratic response to the banking crisis of 2008, then you’ll like this essay by George Packer, which says, in part:

At first, American institutions responded with signs of health: the Federal Reserve stopped the free fall of the biggest banks; the press uncovered corruption and fraud; and a bipartisan Congress passed legislation to get credit flowing and rescue the financial sector. Then the electorate turned out the party in power. The financial crisis decided the election of 2008. Americans who might never have imagined themselves choosing a black President voted for Barack Obama because he understood the scope of the disaster and offered hope for a remedy.

But our democracy turned out to be unwell. The first symptom of sickness came within three weeks of Obama’s inauguration. In February, 2009, with the economy losing seven hundred thousand jobs a month, Congress passed a stimulus bill—a nearly trillion-dollar package of tax cuts, aid to states, and infrastructure spending, considered essential by economists of every persuasion—with the support of just three Republican senators and not a single Republican member of the House. Rather than help save the economy that their party had done so much to wreck, Republicans, led by Senator Mitch McConnell, chose to oppose every Democratic measure, including Wall Street reform. In doing so, they would impede the recovery and let the other party take the fall. It was a brilliantly immoral strategy, and it pretty much worked.

The President didn’t always aid his own cause. He had campaigned as a visionary, but he governed as a technocrat. His policies helped to end the recession within months, but the recovery was excruciatingly slow. The stimulus package could have been much larger, with added money for job creation; more indebted homeowners could have been kept in their houses. Perhaps Obama made too many compromises in the hope of appealing to a bipartisanship that was already dead. But his biggest mistake was to save the bankers along with the banks. After a financial crisis caused in part by fraud, not a single top Wall Street executive was brought to trial. The public wanted to punish the malefactors, but justice was never done.

In the years after the crash, you could feel the fabric of the country fraying…