“Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” asks brother Chico in the madcap classic “Duck Soup.”
It’s the middle of the night in the imaginary European nation of Freedonia. Chico has disguised himself in a scheme to convince a skeptical wealthy widow, the country’s major creditor, that he’s actually the country’s newly elected president (Groucho) to get her to hand over Freedonia’s top secret war plans.
The trouble is Chico’s Italian accent.
And Harpo. He’s disguised himself as Groucho too. And of course there’s Groucho. Three Grouchos. Who’s the real one?
Chico’s line reminds me of the not so funny antics of the Obama administration and our political leadership in their various efforts to convince us that financial system should be left intact and that reform should just be left up to the same regulators who colluded in creating the economic crisis and protecting big bankers’ interests.
That’s essentially what our leaders have proposed, wrapping themselves in the disguise of real reformers.
We may have been blinded for a while by the riches the bankers were offering us, but we can see clearly now what they were: a gaudy mirage.
If we didn’t get it when the economy crashed, we get it now, after we toted up the bill from the unsavory wreckage of Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual, as well as the expense from the equally unappealing survival of Goldman-Sachs.
It’s plain to see that if any bank presidents lost their jobs they were handsomely compensated. None have been forced to face foreclosure or have had their unemployment or health insurance cut off.
The rest of us have a choice: believe our leaders or own eyes.
We understand what happened: the bankers got too big and powerful, got rid of all the rules, got greedy and brought the economy down – except for the part that kept churning out gargantuan bonuses to the financial titans.
We understand what we need to do, too: break up the big banks, curtail their power and wall off their gambling games from the economy the rest of us have to live in.
But the leadership that’s trying to control the debate seems hopelessly out of step with the country.
Not all the politicians are as clueless as the leaders. In fact, more than a dozen senators have signed on to what not long ago would have been considered a radical proposal – to audit the Federal Reserve. It already passed through the House by a wide margin.
This terrifies the administration, which doesn’t want any more details leaking out about the favors the Fed has been granting the big banks at public expense.
So the president’s chief of staff, former investment banker Rahm Emanuel, is working the phones. If the administration favored real reform, they’d be stiffening the politicians’ resolve against the massive bank lobbying intended to gut strong regulation. But instead, the president has sent Emanuel out to do the regulators’ bidding, to dissuade senators from voting for a Fed audit.
In the Senate, a handful of senators have proposed a stronger dose of reform than the administration and Democratic leadership have prescribed. But the Senate’s Democratic leaders are squeamish about even allowing their colleagues to debate these more robust proposals.
Meanwhile, the Republican leadership seems to be getting inspiration from the same Marx Brothers’ movie they’ve been glued to since Obama got elected – “Horse Feathers.” Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell may not have any ideas of their own but they’ve managed to perfectly capture the spirit of the lead character, Samuel Quincy Wagstaffe (played by Groucho) in his opening number, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.”
The Marx Brothers’ wit and wisdom never go out of style but they’re especially timely now. They began their film careers satirizing the hysteria surrounding a real estate bubble: the Florida land boom in “Cocoanuts” in 1929. “You can get any kind of a house you want,” Groucho assures prospective buyers as he auctions off some land of dubious value. “You can even get stucco. Oh, how you can get stuck-o.”
While he poked fun at speculative investing, in real life Groucho was also a victim. He lost his savings in the 1929 crash. “Some of the people I know lost millions,” he quipped bitterly in his autobiography. “I was luckier. All I lost was two hundred and forty thousand dollars. I would have lost more, but that was all the money I had.”