After a day consumed with the Goldman-Sachs hearings, last night I caught up with the latest installment of the television show “24.”
Spoiler alert: I’m going to disclose what’s happening in “24, ” which focuses on the life of a mythical high-level super antiterrorism agent, Jack Bauer, who is pitted constantly and single-handedly not only against the wily, relentless terrorists but against the corrupt and inept politicians and government officials who are his bosses, usually at the same time.
I don’t always agree with the politics of “24.” But I find it insanely entertaining and profoundly troubling. It’s also one of the few public entertainments that confronts directly the issues of authority and morality we’ve been grappling with since 9/11.
In the latest episode, Bauer actually goes against his president, to whom he’s previously shown the utmost loyalty, because he finds out she’s covering up evidence of an assassination. She’s doing it for the greater good of course; to promote a fragile Middle East peace agreement.
At some point, Bauer finds that the principle of accountability is stronger than his ingrained loyalty to his president.
Accountability, Bauer says, is so fundamental to democracy that it cannot be compromised.
When one of his former colleagues, now his new boss, hears what he’s scheming, she cautions him not to go against his president. “You’re not thinking clearly,” she says.
“I’m the only one who’s thinking clearly,” Bauer shoots back.
After a day of watching Goldman’s officials studiously avoid answering questions in the Senate, “24” put a grim exclamation point on one of the most infuriating aspects of the financial crisis: the utter lack of accountability the financial industry has borne for how it wrecked our economy, through fraud, ineptitude, greed and recklessness.
The Obama administration has made clear it’s not interested in punishing bankers: for the greater good of repairing the economy, we’re told, we don’t want to look backward too closely. We need to move forward.
Left unspoken are the millions in contributions that Wall Street has lavished on the Democrats, and the web of interconnections between the administration and the financial industry, most notably Goldman-Sachs.
We’re offered the faux accountability in the emotionally gratifying theater of the Senate Goldman hearings, the SEC’s attempt at reviving its abysmal reputation after missing the Madoff and Stanford massive fraud schemes by suing Goldman for fraud, and the limp, clumsy Financial Inquiry Commission led by Phil Angelides.
Which are fine as far as they go. I hope they provide some impetus to put real muscle into financial reform, and they serve some purpose in reminding people how angry and ripped off they feel.
But let’s not forget they’re mostly theater. For example, the Republican senators took turns with their Democratic colleagues beating up on Goldman for CSPAN, while outside of camera range they get their Wall Street fundraising mojo back.
One of the sharpest critics of the lack of accountability has been Bill Black, a former bank regulator during the S&L crisis, who emphasizes that it was multiple robust criminal investigations that uncovered the widespread wrong-doing at the heart of that financial meltdown.
One official who gets it is Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, aka the bailout, who has raised the possibility of criminal investigations and tangled with the Treasury Department.
Meanwhile the mainstream media serves up pap about how the mild financial reform proposed by the Obama administration is “the biggest overhaul of the nation’s financial system since the Great Depression.”
That’s just not true. The largest overhaul of the system would be the 1999 repeal of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which had kept federally guaranteed traditional banking from riskier casino-style gambling activities which banks found fabulously lucrative before they blew up the economy. The current reform proposals contain nothing as earth-shattering as that.
Despite happy talk of an economic recovery that still looks far off to many on Main Street, the politicians are finding the public’s outrage over their handling of the financial crisis is not abating, fueled in part by the political grandstanding.
Like Jack Bauer, we’ve had it with the corruption and the blundering. Public outrage over Sen. Chris Dodd’s close ties to subprime cronies forced him to retire. Conservative Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln, facing a tough reelection battle, wrote a tough bill that would regulate toxic derivatives. Then she was forced to give away her Goldman-Sachs campaign contributions. On Tuesday, 62 members of Congress wrote a letter demanding that the Justice Department, not just the SEC, investigate Goldman-Sachs. And a handful of senators are preparing amendments that would toughen financial reform.
I know “24” is a fantasy but one of the reasons it’s so compelling is the way it embodies and scrambles the desperation of our current moment, and Jack Bauer, armed to the teeth in a stolen helicopter, touched a nerve this week. Accountability is our most important arsenal.