While I was watching the hearings into the financial crisis last week, a haunting old song got into my head and wouldn’t leave.
It was “Which Side Are You On?” from the 1930s out of the coalfields of Harlan County, Kentucky.
Coal miners faced brutally harsh living and working conditions, under strict control by the coal barons who had complete power over the miners and their communities. The miners and their families waged a tough struggle to win recognition for their union and concessions from the bosses.
The lyrics describe how at a certain point in the fight, the population of Harlan County had to take sides.
They simply couldn’t remain neutral any more. They either had to stand with the miners and their families or with the coal barons and the thugs who enforced their rule.
I wanted to ask Angelides: which side are you on?
Are you on the side of the people who are suffering in the worst economic calamity since the Depression? Or on the side of the bankers and the politicians and regulators who did nothing to halt the crisis and whose response has only made it worse?
Lots of people admire Angelides. He’s a former real estate developer who built a reputation as a reformer while California Treasurer, then ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006.
I found him an odd choice. Previous high-profile investigations have featured lawyers with not only great intellectual chops but who were skilled storytellers and fearless to boot.
Angelides is a bright guy who has some understanding of high finance, but without any of the characteristics that distinguished previous investigators. Far from being a courageous outsider, he’s a Democratic Party insider who has grubbed for political contributions.
He’s bright enough to get training and surround himself with people with those skills.
So why were the hearings so lacking in urgency to get to the bottom of the financial crisis, hold people accountable and offer material support for real reform?
Because Angelides doesn’t understand that at this point, there simply are no more neutrals. If you understand the public’s anger and the mishandling of the financial crisis, then you have an obligation to take a strong stance, and show you are on the side of really fixing the problems.
That’s what Sen. Christopher Dodd found out.
For years the Connecticut Democrat was a darling of the financial industry. Then came the crisis and the bailout. He tried to refashion himself as a reformer but he had no credibility with his constituents after having taken millions in campaign contributions from the financial sector over the years.
The voters in Connecticut weren’t buying the new image. They were threatening to throw him out, so Dodd retired. Since his announcement, he’s showed his true colors, doing his contributors’ bidding by dropping his push for a Consumer Financial Protection Agency.
Unlike Dodd, Angelides is not running for office, at least not now. But he’s wearing the mantle of public protector, and the public is in no mood for phonies.
People don’t want an arbitrator, they want a fighter.
They also don’t have a burning need for another investigation. Several very thorough investigations have already been conducted, including one by the Consumer Education Foundation that you can find here.
Mr. Angelides, we know what happened. What we want to know is, what are you going to do about it? You can still set this commission straight. But you have to bring a sense of passion for the fight that has been missing so far. And you’ve got to know which side you’re on.