To the Next Bailouts, Attach Chains

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 7:00 PM

Among the more vapid criticisms leveled at the Occupy Wall Street movement is that the protesters have not prescribed remedies for society’s ills. They just whine, goes the argument, resentful and envious of those against whom they rail, the One Percent they blame for, well, just about everything.

Like many people around the world, I thank the OWS crowds for drawing attention to important problems, and we should remind the politicians that it’s their job - not the protesters’ - to identify solutions. Rather than try to change the topic, politicians and governments should be working with real intent to understand why the OWS people and their supporters feel such outrage.

Let’s quickly review how we got to this point.

Did you notice that whenever heads of governments and their finance ministers talk about bailing out Greece, they inevitably attach conditions? We’ll raise the funds, say the speeches, but Greece must start, finally, to collect taxes from its citizens, and Greece must enact draconian austerity measures, and Greece must do this and Greece must do that. Seems reasonable enough, but why did the bank bailouts come without any such conditions?

Simple: Greeks don’t stuff cash into election campaign coffers of politicians in the US, the UK and the rest of Europe. Bankers do.

With important elections and legislative matters looming, now would be a good time to understand where officials stand on the next bank bailouts, because more will be needed, and sooner rather than later. Will there be strings attached this time, or will governments just send another round of blank checks to banks and bankers, direct transfers underwritten by working people and secured by their taxes?

Voters should demand now to know how lawmakers will package the next bailouts. If the intent of cash and credit infusions is to raise capital at failing banks, thereby stabilizing the financial system, it would seem that - at a minimum - the following strings should be attached:

  1. Political contributions. Campaign cash and any kind of political advocacy from any bailed out institution or their any executives will be banned for a time covering the bailout plus, say, ten years. Let’s call this the “Restricted Period.”

  1. Lobbying. While admittedly hard to define and to enforce, lawmakers should endeavor to ban lobbying by bailed out banks for the Restricted Period. After the last bailouts, banks’ lobbying to preserve the status quo started so soon that it almost certainly meant that taxpayer money was being spent to oppose banking reform, which is cynical in the extreme.

  1. Austerity. Allowable business expenses for a bailed out bank should be related to business meetings only, and would preclude entertainment, so no food or drink or tickets to sports and exotic resorts. Civil service per diems would apply to travel, which would have to be in economy classes. It is just unconscionable that taxpayer money was subsidizing bankers lavish lifestyles under the guise of deductible expenses. That did happen and it never should again.

  1. Business Reviews. Banks run lucrative trading businesses to help clients evade taxes. These should be shut down in any bank that receives a taxpayer bailout.

  1. Managed default. Any bank bailout would lead to a controlled default that would wipe out equity. Knowing that this will happen should, at last, compel shareholders to take a more active interest in the governance, ethics and risk management controls within banks.

  1. Wage freezes and no bonuses. A bailed out bank’s managed default would allow it to nullify and restate contractual obligations with employees. Wages for all employees of a bailed out bank would need to be set at appropriate levels vis-a-vis benchmarks of civil servants or, even better, the military. The necessity of a bailout implies that the institution has no independent existence and, as such, its employees are in effect government workers.

Naturally, this last stipulation will be attacked by banks and bankers as counterproductive and entirely infeasible. After all, as soon as the last bailout checks had cleared, banks took the cash and paid bonuses to staff and even raised their pay, citing the need to “stay competitive” to retain the great talents of their staff.

That simply cannot be allowed to happen again. While any employee of a bailed out bank should have the right to refuse new terms and to quit, it is also vitally important for governments to act decisively in times of crisis and national emergency.

Through treaties and other coordinated efforts, elected leaders must resolve to restrict the mobility of staff of bailed out banks until stability can be established. Any employee who chooses to leave should be called a deserter and be tracked through their local regulator. Financial institutions who hired deserters would be penalized and barred from government work.

Is that fair to the individuals who would be affected, especially those with no role in the self-destructive behavior of their employers? Maybe not, but it pales in comparison to the injustice suffered by others.

Let’s recall that while bankers grabbed taxpayer cash, and while they negotiated secret deals over unpaid taxes and settled claims for fraudulent conduct, the governments of many countries were scrambling for cash to maintain essential public works and services.

Make no mistake about it: because of bank bailouts, we have fewer working teachers today, fewer police, worse roads and, most of all, conditions are more dangerous for our armed forces who lay their lives on the line every day in the service of their countries.

Thank you, OWS for your peaceful perseverance and for keeping the heat on governments and banks. Please keep it up, at least until officials promise to attach chains, fair and just, to the next bank bailouts.