Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Another Wall Street Agent Named For Treasury Head

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When President Barack Obama nominated Jack Lew to be his new secretary of the Treasury, the corporate press seemed most concerned about his illegible signature, which would appear on most of the U.S. currency. Far less attention was paid to lesser publicized — and far more important — traits of Lew, and for good reason.

The secretary of the Treasury is one of the most powerful posts in the U.S. government and, indeed, the world. If confirmed, Lew would not just oversee the more than $3 trillion federal budget and the currency. The secretary also serves as chair of the boards and managing trustee of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Fund — as well as U.S governor of the International Monetary Fund, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

He is also a member of the National Security Council and fifth in succession should anything happen to the president.

Almost every secretary of the treasury in modern U.S. history has come from — and usually returned to — Wall Street.

Lew has been hailed in some quarters as a “compassionate liberal,” who will stand up for the rights of poor and working people, particularly in negotiations with Congress over the “fiscal cliff.” But there is a grimmer side to Jack Lew.

A commentator from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute think tank let the cat out of the bag with the following statement: “[While Lew's] strong liberal credentials may irk Republicans … he is well-positioned to sell a large deficit agreement to Mr. Obama’s Democratic base, [which is] wary of big cuts to social programs.” (Financial Times, Jan. 12)

Having served in the Clinton administration, where he advocated a hands-off approach to big business, Lew was in private practice during the Bush administrations. (“Is Jack Lew a Friend to Wall Street?” National Journal, Jan. 10)

Union busting, bailouts & Social Security

In 2004, he was the chief operating officer of New York University, where he oversaw a vicious — if seemingly mild-mannered — union-busting operation. During Lew’s tenure, NYU withdrew recognition from its graduate student employees’ union and punished participants in the ensuing strike. United Auto Workers Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein said that Lew was “the point person” in “representing management’s position” against the union. (In These Times, Jan. 17, 2012)

From union busting, Lew proceeded to Wall Street. While he was chief operating officer of Citigroup from 2006 to 2008, he happily accepted $45 billion in bailout funds from the federal government. Citigroup sorely needed the funds, having lost $27.7 billion during Lew’s tenure. The unit he oversaw even invested in a hedge fund “that bet on the housing market to collapse.” (motherjones.com, Jan. 9, 2012)

But perhaps most revealing is Lew’s attitude toward cuts in Social Security as a means of “ending the fiscal crisis.” President Obama has touted Lew’s role in negotiating the Reagan “reforms,” which he says “saved Social Security” in the 1980s. (The Atlantic Wire, Jan. 10) Obama failed to mention that these so-called reforms were mostly at the expense of working people through such tactics as raising the retirement age.

During the recent fiscal-cliff negotiations, Lew not only showed a willingness to accept, but actually proposed deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security. Meanwhile, Lew maintains his friendly attitude toward the big banks.

According to Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Independent from Vermont, “The six largest financial institutions in this country have assets equivalent to $9 trillion, which is two-thirds of the [gross domestic product] of the United States of America. Three out of the four largest financial institutions today are bigger than they were before we bailed [them] out because they were quote-unquote too big too fail.”(Talking Points Memo, Jan. 11)

That’s where a lot of the money resides that’s been squeezed out of the working class. But don’t expect this bankers’ banker to go after it. He’ll be too busy trying to find ways to raid Social Security — the supposedly untouchable retirement fund that comes from deferred workers’ wages and has now been put on the chopping block by both capitalist parties.

Secrets And Lies Of The Bailout

The federal rescue of Wall Street didn’t fix the economy – it created a permanent bailout state based on a Ponzi-like confidence scheme. And the worst may be yet to come

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It has been four long winters since the federal government, in the hulking, shaven-skulled, Alien Nation-esque form of then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, committed $700 billion in taxpayer money to rescue Wall Street from its own chicanery and greed. To listen to the bankers and their allies in Washington tell it, you'd think the bailout was the best thing to hit the American economy since the invention of the assembly line. Not only did it prevent another Great Depression, we've been told, but the money has all been paid back, and the government even made a profit. No harm, no foul – right?

Wrong.

It was all a lie – one of the biggest and most elaborate falsehoods ever sold to the American people. We were told that the taxpayer was stepping in – only temporarily, mind you – to prop up the economy and save the world from financial catastrophe. What we actually ended up doing was the exact opposite: committing American taxpayers to permanent, blind support of an ungovernable, unregulatable, hyperconcentrated new financial system that exacerbates the greed and inequality that caused the crash, and forces Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup to increase risk rather than reduce it. The result is one of those deals where one wrong decision early on blossoms into a lush nightmare of unintended consequences. We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.

But the most appalling part is the lying. The public has been lied to so shamelessly and so often in the course of the past four years that the failure to tell the truth to the general populace has become a kind of baked-in, official feature of the financial rescue. Money wasn't the only thing the government gave Wall Street – it also conferred the right to hide the truth from the rest of us. And it was all done in the name of helping regular people and creating jobs. "It is," says former bailout Inspector General Neil Barofsky, "the ultimate bait-and-switch."

The bailout deceptions came early, late and in between. There were lies told in the first moments of their inception, and others still being told four years later. The lies, in fact, were the most important mechanisms of the bailout. The only reason investors haven't run screaming from an obviously corrupt financial marketplace is because the government has gone to such extraordinary lengths to sell the narrative that the problems of 2008 have been fixed. Investors may not actually believe the lie, but they are impressed by how totally committed the government has been, from the very beginning, to selling it.

THEY LIED TO PASS THE BAILOUT

Today what few remember about the bailouts is that we had to approve them. It wasn't like Paulson could just go out and unilaterally commit trillions of public dollars to rescue Goldman Sachs and Citigroup from their own stupidity and bad management (although the government ended up doing just that, later on). Much as with a declaration of war, a similarly extreme and expensive commitment of public resources, Paulson needed at least a film of congressional approval. And much like the Iraq War resolution, which was only secured after George W. Bush ludicrously warned that Saddam was planning to send drones to spray poison over New York City, the bailouts were pushed through Congress with a series of threats and promises that ranged from the merely ridiculous to the outright deceptive. At one meeting to discuss the original bailout bill – at 11 a.m. on September 18th, 2008 – Paulson actually told members of Congress that $5.5 trillion in wealth would disappear by 2 p.m. that day unless the government took immediate action, and that the world economy would collapse "within 24 hours."

To be fair, Paulson started out by trying to tell the truth in his own ham-headed, narcissistic way. His first TARP proposal was a three-page absurdity pulled straight from a Beavis and Butt-Head episode – it was basically Paulson saying, "Can you, like, give me some money?" Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, remembers a call with Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. "We need $700 billion," they told Brown, "and we need it in three days." What's more, the plan stipulated, Paulson could spend the money however he pleased, without review "by any court of law or any administrative agency."

The White House and leaders of both parties actually agreed to this preposterous document, but it died in the House when 95 Democrats lined up against it. For an all-too-rare moment during the Bush administration, something resembling sanity prevailed in Washington.

So Paulson came up with a more convincing lie. On paper, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was simple: Treasury would buy $700 billion of troubled mortgages from the banks and then modify them to help struggling homeowners. Section 109 of the act, in fact, specifically empowered the Treasury secretary to "facilitate loan modifications to prevent avoidable foreclosures." With that promise on the table, wary Democrats finally approved the bailout on October 3rd, 2008. "That provision," says Barofsky, "is what got the bill passed."

But within days of passage, the Fed and the Treasury unilaterally decided to abandon the planned purchase of toxic assets in favor of direct injections of billions in cash into companies like Goldman and Citigroup. Overnight, Section 109 was unceremoniously ditched, and what was pitched as a bailout of both banks and homeowners instantly became a bank-only operation – marking the first in a long series of moves in which bailout officials either casually ignored or openly defied their own promises with regard to TARP.

Congress was furious. "We've been lied to," fumed Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia. Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, raged at transparently douchey TARP administrator (and Goldman banker) Neel Kashkari, calling him a "chump" for the banks. And the anger was bipartisan: Republican senators David Vitter of Louisiana and James Inhofe of Oklahoma were so mad about the unilateral changes and lack of oversight that they sponsored a bill in January 2009 to cancel the remaining $350 billion of TARP.

So what did bailout officials do? They put together a proposal full of even bigger deceptions to get it past Congress a second time. That process began almost exactly four years ago – on January 12th and 15th, 2009 – when Larry Summers, the senior economic adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, sent a pair of letters to Congress. The pudgy, stubby­fingered former World Bank economist, who had been forced out as Harvard president for suggesting that women lack a natural aptitude for math and science, begged legislators to reject Vitter's bill and leave TARP alone.

In the letters, Summers laid out a five-point plan in which the bailout was pitched as a kind of giant populist program to help ordinary Americans. Obama, Summers vowed, would use the money to stimulate bank lending to put people back to work. He even went so far as to say that banks would be denied funding unless they agreed to "increase lending above baseline levels." He promised that "tough and transparent conditions" would be imposed on bailout recipients, who would not be allowed to use bailout funds toward "enriching shareholders or executives." As in the original TARP bill, he pledged that bailout money would be used to aid homeowners in foreclosure. And lastly, he promised that the bailouts would be temporary – with a "plan for exit of government intervention" implemented "as quickly as possible."

The reassurances worked. Once again, TARP survived in Congress – and once again, the bailouts were greenlighted with the aid of Democrats who fell for the old "it'll help ordinary people" sales pitch. "I feel like they've given me a lot of commitment on the housing front," explained Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat from Alaska.

But in the end, almost nothing Summers promised actually materialized. A small slice of TARP was earmarked for foreclosure relief, but the resultant aid programs for homeowners turned out to be riddled with problems, for the perfectly logical reason that none of the bailout's architects gave a shit about them. They were drawn up practically overnight and rushed out the door for purely political reasons – to trick Congress into handing over tons of instant cash for Wall Street, with no strings attached. "Without those assurances, the level of opposition would have remained the same," says Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a leading progressive who voted against TARP. The promise of housing aid, in particular, turned out to be a "paper tiger."

HAMP, the signature program to aid poor homeowners, was announced by President Obama on February 18th, 2009. The move inspired CNBC commentator Rick Santelli to go berserk the next day – the infamous viral rant that essentially birthed the Tea Party. Reacting to the news that Obama was planning to use bailout funds to help poor and (presumably) minority homeowners facing foreclosure, Santelli fumed that the president wanted to "subsidize the losers' mortgages" when he should "reward people that could carry the water, instead of drink the water." The tirade against "water drinkers" led to the sort of spontaneous nationwide protests one might have expected months before, when we essentially gave a taxpayer-funded blank check to Gamblers Anonymous addicts, the millionaire and billionaire class.

In fact, the amount of money that eventually got spent on homeowner aid now stands as a kind of grotesque joke compared to the Himalayan mountain range of cash that got moved onto the balance sheets of the big banks more or less instantly in the first months of the bailouts. At the start, $50 billion of TARP funds were earmarked for HAMP. In 2010, the size of the program was cut to $30 billion. As of November of last year, a mere $4 billion total has been spent for loan modifications and other homeowner aid.

In short, the bailout program designed to help those lazy, job-averse, "water-drinking" minority homeowners – the one that gave birth to the Tea Party – turns out to have comprised about one percent of total TARP spending. "It's amazing," says Paul Kiel, who monitors bailout spending for ProPublica. "It's probably one of the biggest failures of the Obama administration."

The failure of HAMP underscores another damning truth – that the Bush-Obama bailout was as purely bipartisan a program as we've had. Imagine Obama retaining Don Rumsfeld as defense secretary and still digging for WMDs in the Iraqi desert four years after his election: That's what it was like when he left Tim Geithner, one of the chief architects of Bush's bailout, in command of the no-strings­attached rescue four years after Bush left office.

Yet Obama's HAMP program, as lame as it turned out to be, still stands out as one of the few pre-bailout promises that was even partially fulfilled. Virtually every other promise Summers made in his letters turned out to be total bullshit. And that includes maybe the most important promise of all – the pledge to use the bailout money to put people back to work.

THEY LIED ABOUT LENDING

Once TARP passed, the government quickly began loaning out billions to some 500 banks that it deemed "healthy" and "viable." A few were cash loans, repayable at five percent within the first five years; other deals came due when a bank stock hit a predetermined price. As long as banks held TARP money, they were barred from paying out big cash bonuses to top executives.

But even before Summers promised Congress that banks would be required to increase lending as a condition for receiving bailout funds, officials had already decided not to even ask the banks to use the money to increase lending. In fact, they'd decided not to even ask banks to monitor what they did with the bailout money. Barofsky, the TARP inspector, asked Treasury to include a requirement forcing recipients to explain what they did with the taxpayer money. He was stunned when TARP administrator Kashkari rejected his proposal, telling him lenders would walk away from the program if they had to deal with too many conditions. "The banks won't participate," Kashkari said.

Barofsky, a former high-level drug prosecutor who was one of the only bailout officials who didn't come from Wall Street, didn't buy that cash-desperate banks would somehow turn down billions in aid. "It was like they were trembling with fear that the banks wouldn't take the money," he says. "I never found that terribly convincing."

In the end, there was no lending requirement attached to any aspect of the bailout, and there never would be. Banks used their hundreds of billions for almost every purpose under the sun – everything, that is, but lending to the homeowners and small businesses and cities they had destroyed. And one of the most disgusting uses they found for all their billions in free government money was to help them earn even more free government money.

To guarantee their soundness, all major banks are required to keep a certain amount of reserve cash at the Fed. In years past, that money didn't earn interest, for the logical reason that banks shouldn't get paid to stay solvent. But in 2006 – arguing that banks were losing profits on cash parked at the Fed – regulators agreed to make small interest payments on the money. The move wasn't set to go into effect until 2011, but when the crash hit, a section was written into TARP that launched the interest payments in October 2008.

In theory, there should never be much money in such reserve accounts, because any halfway-competent bank could make far more money lending the cash out than parking it at the Fed, where it earns a measly quarter of a percent. In August 2008, before the bailout began, there were just $2 billion in excess reserves at the Fed. But by that October, the number had ballooned to $267 billion – and by January 2009, it had grown to $843 billion. That means there was suddenly more money sitting uselessly in Fed accounts than Congress had approved for either the TARP bailout or the much-loathed Obama stimulus. Instead of lending their new cash to struggling homeowners and small businesses, as Summers had promised, the banks were literally sitting on it.

Today, excess reserves at the Fed total an astonishing $1.4 trillion."The money is just doing nothing," says Nomi Prins, a former Goldman executive who has spent years monitoring the distribution of bailout money.

Nothing, that is, except earning a few crumbs of risk-free interest for the banks. Prins estimates that the annual haul in interest­ on Fed reserves is about $3.6 billion – a relatively tiny subsidy in the scheme of things, but one that, ironically, just about matches the total amount of bailout money spent on aid to homeowners. Put another way, banks are getting paid about as much every year for not lending money as 1 million Americans received for mortgage modifications and other housing aid in the whole of the past four years.

Moreover, instead of using the bailout money as promised – to jump-start the economy – Wall Street used the funds to make the economy more dangerous. From the start, taxpayer money was used to subsidize a string of finance mergers, from the Chase-Bear Stearns deal to the Wells Fargo­Wachovia merger to Bank of America's acquisition of Merrill Lynch. Aided by bailout funds, being Too Big to Fail was suddenly Too Good to Pass Up.

Other banks found more creative uses for bailout money. In October 2010, Obama signed a new bailout bill creating a program called the Small Business Lending Fund, in which firms with fewer than $10 billion in assets could apply to share in a pool of $4 billion in public money. As it turned out, however, about a third of the 332 companies that took part in the program used at least some of the money to repay their original TARP loans. Small banks that still owed TARP money essentially took out cheaper loans from the government to repay their more expensive TARP loans – a move that conveniently exempted them from the limits on executive bonuses mandated by the bailout. All told, studies show, $2.2 billion of the $4 billion ended up being spent not on small-business loans, but on TARP repayment. "It's a bit of a shell game," admitted John Schmidt, chief operating officer of Iowa-based Heartland Financial, which took $81.7 million from the SBLF and used every penny of it to repay TARP.

Using small-business funds to pay down their own debts, parking huge amounts of cash at the Fed in the midst of a stalled economy – it's all just evidence of what most Americans know instinctively: that the bailouts didn't result in much new business lending. If anything, the bailouts actually hindered lending, as banks became more like house pets that grow fat and lazy on two guaranteed meals a day than wild animals that have to go out into the jungle and hunt for opportunities in order to eat. The Fed's own analysis bears this out: In the first three months of the bailout, as taxpayer billions poured in, TARP recipients slowed down lending at a rate more than double that of banks that didn't receive TARP funds. The biggest drop in lending – 3.1 percent – came from the biggest bailout recipient, Citigroup. A year later, the inspector general for the bailout found that lending among the nine biggest TARP recipients "did not, in fact, increase." The bailout didn't flood the banking system with billions in loans for small businesses, as promised. It just flooded the banking system with billions for the banks.

THEY LIED ABOUT THE HEALTH OF THE BANKS

The main reason banks didn't lend out bailout funds is actually pretty simple: Many of them needed the money just to survive. Which leads to another of the bailout's broken promises – that taxpayer money would only be handed out to "viable" banks.

Soon after TARP passed, Paulson and other officials announced the guidelines for their unilaterally changed bailout plan. Congress had approved $700 billion to buy up toxic mortgages, but $250 billion of the money was now shifted to direct capital injections for banks. (Although Paulson claimed at the time that handing money directly to the banks was a faster way to restore market confidence than lending it to homeowners, he later confessed that he had been contemplating the direct-cash-injection plan even before the vote.) This new let's-just-fork-over-cash portion of the bailout was called the Capital Purchase Program. Under the CPP, nine of America's largest banks – including Citi, Wells Fargo, Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, State Street and Bank of New York Mellon – received $125 billion, or half of the funds being doled out. Since those nine firms accounted for 75 percent of all assets held in America's banks – $11 trillion – it made sense they would get the lion's share of the money. But in announcing the CPP, Paulson and Co. promised that they would only be stuffing cash into "healthy and viable" banks. This, at the core, was the entire justification for the bailout: That the huge infusion of taxpayer cash would not be used to rescue individual banks, but to kick-start the economy as a whole by helping healthy banks start lending again.

This announcement marked the beginning of the legend that certain Wall Street banks only took the bailout money because they were forced to – they didn't need all those billions, you understand, they just did it for the good of the country. "We did not, at that point, need TARP," Chase chief Jamie Dimon later claimed, insisting that he only took the money "because we were asked to by the secretary of Treasury." Goldman chief Lloyd Blankfein similarly claimed that his bank never needed the money, and that he wouldn't have taken it if he'd known it was "this pregnant with potential for backlash." A joint statement by Paulson, Bernanke and FDIC chief Sheila Bair praised the nine leading banks as "healthy institutions" that were taking the cash only to "enhance the overall performance of the U.S. economy."

But right after the bailouts began, soon-to-be Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner admitted to Barofsky, the inspector general, that he and his cohorts had picked the first nine bailout recipients because of their size, without bothering to assess their health and viability. Paulson, meanwhile, later admitted that he had serious concerns about at least one of the nine firms he had publicly pronounced healthy. And in November 2009, Bernanke gave a closed-door interview to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the body charged with investigating the causes of the economic meltdown, in which he admitted that 12 of the 13 most prominent financial companies in America were on the brink of failure during the time of the initial bailouts.

On the inside, at least, almost everyone connected with the bailout knew that the top banks were in deep trouble. "It became obvious pretty much as soon as I took the job that these companies weren't really healthy and viable," says Barofsky, who stepped down as TARP inspector in 2011.

This early episode would prove to be a crucial moment in the history of the bailout. It set the precedent of the government allowing unhealthy banks to not only call themselves healthy, but to get the government to endorse their claims. Projecting an image of soundness was, to the government, more important than disclosing the truth. Officials like Geithner and Paulson seemed to genuinely believe that the market's fears about corruption in the banking system was a bigger problem than the corruption itself. Time and again, they justified TARP as a move needed to "bolster confidence" in the system – and a key to that effort was keeping the banks' insolvency a secret. In doing so, they created a bizarre new two-tiered financial market, divided between those who knew the truth about how bad things were and those who did not.

A month or so after the bailout team called the top nine banks "healthy," it became clear that the biggest recipient, Citigroup, had actually flat-lined on the ER table. Only weeks after Paulson and Co. gave the firm $25 billion in TARP funds, Citi – which was in the midst of posting a quarterly loss of more than $17 billion – came back begging for more. In November 2008, Citi received another $20 billion in cash and more than $300 billion in guarantees.

What's most amazing about this isn't that Citi got so much money, but that government-endorsed, fraudulent health ratings magically became part of its bailout. The chief financial regulators – the Fed, the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency – use a ratings system called CAMELS to measure the fitness of institutions. CAMELS stands for Capital, Assets, Management, Earnings, Liquidity and Sensitivity to risk, and it rates firms from one to five, with one being the best and five the crappiest. In the heat of the crisis, just as Citi was receiving the second of what would turn out to be three massive federal bailouts, the bank inexplicably enjoyed a three rating – the financial equivalent of a passing grade. In her book, Bull by the Horns, then-FDIC chief Sheila Bair recounts expressing astonishment to OCC head John Dugan as to why "Citi rated as a CAMELS 3 when it was on the brink of failure." Dugan essentially answered that "since the government planned on bailing Citi out, the OCC did not plan to change its supervisory rating." Similarly, the FDIC ended up granting a "systemic risk exception" to Citi, allowing it access to FDIC-bailout help even though the agency knew the bank was on the verge of collapse.

The sweeping impact of these crucial decisions has never been fully appreciated. In the years preceding the bailouts, banks like Citi had been perpetuating a kind of fraud upon the public by pretending to be far healthier than they really were. In some cases, the fraud was outright, as in the case of Lehman Brothers, which was using an arcane accounting trick to book tens of billions of loans as revenues each quarter, making it look like it had more cash than it really did. In other cases, the fraud was more indirect, as in the case of Citi, which in 2007 paid out the third-highest dividend in America – $10.7 billion – despite the fact that it had lost $9.8 billion in the fourth quarter of that year alone. The whole financial sector, in fact, had taken on Ponzi-like characteristics, as many banks were hugely dependent on a continual influx of new money from things like sales of subprime mortgages to cover up massive future liabilities from toxic investments that, sooner or later, were going to come to the surface.

Now, instead of using the bailouts as a clear-the-air moment, the government decided to double down on such fraud, awarding healthy ratings to these failing banks and even twisting its numerical audits and assessments to fit the cooked-up narrative. A major component of the original TARP bailout was a promise to ensure "full and accurate accounting" by conducting regular­ "stress tests" of the bailout recipients. When Geithner announced his stress-test plan in February 2009, a reporter instantly blasted him with an obvious and damning question: Doesn't the fact that you have to conduct these tests prove that bank regulators, who should already know plenty about banks' solvency, actually have no idea who is solvent and who isn't?

The government did wind up conducting regular stress tests of all the major bailout recipients, but the methodology proved to be such an obvious joke that it was even lampooned on Saturday Night Live. (In the skit, Geithner abandons a planned numerical score system because it would unfairly penalize bankers who were "not good at banking.") In 2009, just after the first round of tests was released, it came out that the Fed had allowed banks to literally rejigger the numbers to make their bottom lines look better. When the Fed found Bank of America had a $50 billion capital hole, for instance, the bank persuaded examiners to cut that number by more than $15 billion because of what it said were "errors made by examiners in the analysis." Citigroup got its number slashed from $35 billion to $5.5 billion when the bank pleaded with the Fed to give it credit for "pending transactions."

Such meaningless parodies of oversight continue to this day. Earlier this year, Regions Financial Corp. – a company that had failed to pay back $3.5 billion in TARP loans – passed its stress test. A subsequent analysis by Bloomberg View found that Regions was effectively $525 million in the red. Nonetheless, the bank's CEO proclaimed that the stress test "demonstrates the strength of our company." Shortly after the test was concluded, the bank issued $900 million in stock and said it planned on using the cash to pay back some of the money it had borrowed under TARP.

This episode underscores a key feature of the bailout: the government's decision to use lies as a form of monetary aid. State hands over taxpayer money to functionally insolvent bank; state gives regulatory thumbs up to said bank; bank uses that thumbs up to sell stock; bank pays cash back to state. What's critical here is not that investors actually buy the Fed's bullshit accounting – all they have to do is believe the government will backstop Regions either way, healthy or not. "Clearly, the Fed wanted it to attract new investors," observed Bloomberg, "and those who put fresh capital into Regions this week believe the government won't let it die."

Through behavior like this, the government has turned the entire financial system into a kind of vast confidence game – a Ponzi-like scam in which the value of just about everything in the system is inflated because of the widespread belief that the government will step in to prevent losses. Clearly, a government that's already in debt over its eyes for the next million years does not have enough capital on hand to rescue every Citigroup or Regions Bank in the land should they all go bust tomorrow. But the market is behaving as if Daddy will step in to once again pay the rent the next time any or all of these kids sets the couch on fire and skips out on his security deposit. Just like an actual Ponzi scheme, it works only as long as they don't have to make good on all the promises they've made. They're building an economy based not on real accounting and real numbers, but on belief. And while the signs of growth and recovery in this new faith-based economy may be fake, one aspect of the bailout has been consistently concrete: the broken promises over executive pay.

THEY LIED ABOUT BONUSES

That executive bonuses on Wall Street were a political hot potato for the bailout's architects was obvious from the start. That's why Summers, in saving the bailout from the ire of Congress, vowed to "limit executive compensation" and devote public money to prevent another financial crisis. And it's true, TARP did bar recipients from a whole range of exorbitant pay practices, which is one reason the biggest banks, like Goldman Sachs, worked so quickly to repay their TARP loans.

But there were all sorts of ways around the restrictions. Banks could apply to the Fed and other regulators for waivers, which were often approved (one senior FDIC official tells me he recommended denying "golden parachute" payments to Citigroup officials, only to see them approved by superiors). They could get bailouts through programs other than TARP that did not place limits on bonuses. Or they could simply pay bonuses not prohibited under TARP. In one of the worst episodes, the notorious lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paid out more than $200 million in bonuses­ between 2008 and 2010, even though the firms (a) lost more than $100 billion in 2008 alone, and (b) required nearly $400 billion in federal assistance during the bailout period.

Even worse was the incredible episode in which bailout recipient AIG paid more than $1 million each to 73 employees of AIG Financial Products, the tiny unit widely blamed for having destroyed the insurance giant (and perhaps even triggered the whole crisis) with its reckless issuance of nearly half a trillion dollars in toxic credit-default swaps. The "retention bonuses," paid after the bailout, went to 11 employees who no longer worked for AIG.

But all of these "exceptions" to the bonus restrictions are far less infuriating, it turns out, than the rule itself. TARP did indeed bar big cash-bonus payouts by firms that still owed money to the government. But those firms were allowed to issue extra compensation to executives in the form of long-term restricted stock. An independent research firm asked to analyze the stock options for The New York Times found that the top five executives at each of the 18 biggest bailout recipients received a total of $142 million in stocks and options. That's plenty of money all by itself – but thanks in large part to the government's overt display of support for those firms, the value of those options has soared to $457 million, an average of $4 million per executive.

In other words, we didn't just allow banks theoretically barred from paying bonuses to pay bonuses. We actually allowed them to pay bigger bonuses than they otherwise could have. Instead of forcing the firms to reward top executives in cash, we allowed them to pay in depressed stock, the value of which we then inflated due to the government's implicit endorsement of those firms.

All of which leads us to the last and most important deception of the bailouts:

THEY LIED ABOUT THE BAILOUT BEING TEMPORARY

The bailout ended up being much bigger than anyone expected, expanded far beyond TARP to include more obscure (and in some cases far larger) programs with names like TALF, TAF, PPIP and TLGP. What's more, some parts of the bailout were designed to extend far into the future. Companies like AIG, GM and Citigroup, for instance, were given tens of billions of deferred tax assets – allowing them to carry losses from 2008 forward to offset future profits and keep future tax bills down. Official estimates of the bailout's costs do not include such ongoing giveaways. "This is stuff that's never going to appear on any report," says Barofsky.

Citigroup, all by itself, boasts more than $50 billion in deferred tax credits – which is how the firm managed to pay less in taxes in 2011 (it actually received a $144 million credit) than it paid in compensation that year to its since-ousted dingbat CEO, Vikram Pandit (who pocketed $14.9 million). The bailout, in short, enabled the very banks and financial institutions that cratered the global economy to write off the losses from their toxic deals for years to come – further depriving the government of much-needed tax revenues it could have used to help homeowners and small businesses who were screwed over by the banks in the first place.

Even worse, the $700 billion in TARP loans ended up being dwarfed by more than $7.7 trillion in secret emergency lending that the Fed awarded to Wall Street – loans that were only disclosed to the public after Congress forced an extraordinary one-time audit of the Federal Reserve. The extent of this "secret bailout" didn't come out until November 2011, when Bloomberg Markets, which went to court to win the right to publish the data, detailed how the country's biggest firms secretly received trillions in near-free money throughout the crisis.

Goldman Sachs, which had made such a big show of being reluctant about accepting $10 billion in TARP money, was quick to cash in on the secret loans being offered by the Fed. By the end of 2008, Goldman had snarfed up $34 billion in federal loans – and it was paying an interest rate of as low as just 0.01 percent for the huge cash infusion. Yet that funding was never disclosed to shareholders or taxpayers, a fact Goldman confirms. "We did not disclose the amount of our participation in the two programs you identify," says Goldman spokesman Michael Duvally.

Goldman CEO Blankfein later dismissed the importance of the loans, telling the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that the bank wasn't "relying on those mechanisms." But in his book, Bailout, Barofsky says that Paulson told him that he believed Morgan Stanley was "just days" from collapse before government intervention, while Bernanke later admitted that Goldman would have been the next to fall.

Meanwhile, at the same moment that leading banks were taking trillions in secret loans from the Fed, top officials at those firms were buying up stock in their companies, privy to insider info that was not available to the public at large. Stephen Friedman, a Goldman director who was also chairman of the New York Fed, bought more than $4 million of Goldman stock over a five-week period in December 2008 and January 2009 – years before the extent of the firm's lifeline from the Fed was made public. Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit bought nearly $7 million in Citi stock in November 2008, just as his firm was secretly taking out $99.5 billion in Fed loans. Jamie Dimon bought more than $11 million in Chase stock in early 2009, at a time when his firm was receiving as much as $60 billion in secret Fed loans. When asked by Rolling Stone, Chase could not point to any disclosure of the bank's borrowing from the Fed until more than a year later, when Dimon wrote about it in a letter to shareholders in March 2010.

The stock purchases by America's top bankers raise serious questions of insider trading. Two former high-ranking financial regulators tell Rolling Stone that the secret loans were likely subject to a 1989 guideline, issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the heat of the savings and loan crisis, which said that financial institutions should disclose the "nature, amounts and effects" of any government aid. At the end of 2011, in fact, the SEC sent letters to Citigroup, Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Wells Fargo asking them why they hadn't fully disclosed their secret borrowing. All five megabanks essentially replied, to varying degrees of absurdity, that their massive borrowing from the Fed was not "material," or that the piecemeal disclosure they had engaged in was adequate. Never mind that the law says investors have to be informed right away if CEOs like Dimon and Pandit decide to give themselves a $10,000 raise. According to the banks, it's none of your business if those same CEOs are making use of a secret $50 billion charge card from the Fed.

The implications here go far beyond the question of whether Dimon and Co. committed insider trading by buying and selling stock while they had access to material nonpublic information about the bailouts. The broader and more pressing concern is the clear implication that by failing to act, federal regulators­ have tacitly approved the nondisclosure. Instead of trusting the markets to do the right thing when provided with accurate information, the government has instead channeled Jack Nicholson – and decided that the public just can't handle the truth.

All of this – the willingness to call dying banks healthy, the sham stress tests, the failure to enforce bonus rules, the seeming indifference to public disclosure, not to mention the shocking­ lack of criminal investigations into fraud committed by bailout recipients before the crash – comprised the largest and most valuable bailout of all. Brick by brick, statement by reassuring statement, bailout officials have spent years building the government's great Implicit Guarantee to the biggest companies on Wall Street: We will be there for you, always, no matter how much you screw up. We will lie for you and let you get away with just about anything. We will make this ongoing bailout a pervasive and permanent part of the financial system. And most important of all, we will publicly commit to this policy, being so obvious about it that the markets will be able to put an exact price tag on the value of our preferential treatment.

The first independent study that attempted to put a numerical value on the Implicit Guarantee popped up about a year after the crash, in September 2009, when Dean Baker and Travis McArthur of the Center for Economic and Policy Research published a paper called "The Value of the 'Too Big to Fail' Big Bank Subsidy." Baker and McArthur found that prior to the last quarter of 2007, just before the start of the crisis, financial firms with $100 billion or more in assets were paying on average about 0.29 percent less to borrow money than smaller firms.

By the second quarter of 2009, however, once the bailouts were in full swing, that spread had widened to 0.78 percent. The conclusion was simple: Lenders were about a half a point more willing to lend to a bank with implied government backing – even a proven-stupid bank – than they were to lend to companies who "must borrow based on their own credit worthiness." The economists estimated that the lending gap amounted to an annual subsidy of $34 billion a year to the nation's 18 biggest banks.

Today the borrowing advantage of a big bank remains almost exactly what it was three years ago – about 50 basis points, or half a percent. "These megabanks still receive subsidies in the sense that they can borrow on the capital markets at a discount rate of 50 or 70 points because of the implicit view that these banks are Too Big to Fail," says Sen. Brown.

Why does the market believe that? Because the officials who administered the bailouts made that point explicitly, over and over again. When Geithner announced the implementation of the stress tests in 2009, for instance, he declared that banks who didn't have enough money to pass the test could get it from the government. "We're going to help this process by providing a new program of capital support for those institutions that need it," Geithner said. The message, says Barofsky, was clear: "If the banks cannot raise capital, we will do it for them." It was an Implicit Guarantee that the banks would not be allowed to fail – a point that Geithner and other officials repeatedly stressed over the years. "The markets took all those little comments by Geithner as a clue that the government is looking out for them," says Baker. That psychological signaling, he concludes, is responsible for the crucial half-point borrowing spread.

The inherent advantage of bigger banks – the permanent, ongoing bailout they are still receiving from the government – has led to a host of gruesome consequences. All the big banks have paid back their TARP loans, while more than 300 smaller firms are still struggling to repay their bailout debts. Even worse, the big banks, instead of breaking down into manageable parts and becoming more efficient, have grown even bigger and more unmanageable, making the economy far more concentrated and dangerous than it was before. America's six largest banks – Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley – now have a combined 14,420 subsidiaries, making them so big as to be effectively beyond regulation. A recent study by the Kansas City Fed found that it would take 70,000 examiners to inspect such trillion-dollar banks with the same level of attention normally given to a community bank. "The complexity is so overwhelming that no regulator can follow it well enough to regulate the way we need to," says Sen. Brown, who is drafting a bill to break up the megabanks.

Worst of all, the Implicit Guarantee has led to a dangerous shift in banking behavior. With an apparently endless stream of free or almost-free money available to banks – coupled with a well-founded feeling among bankers that the government will back them up if anything goes wrong – banks have made a dramatic move into riskier and more speculative investments, including everything from high-risk corporate bonds to mortgage­backed securities to payday loans, the sleaziest and most disreputable end of the financial system. In 2011, banks increased their investments in junk-rated companies by 74 percent, and began systematically easing their lending standards in search of more high-yield customers to lend to.

This is a virtual repeat of the financial crisis, in which a wave of greed caused bankers to recklessly chase yield everywhere, to the point where lowering lending standards became the norm. Now the government, with its Implicit Guarantee, is causing exactly the same behavior – meaning the bailouts have brought us right back to where we started. "Government intervention," says Klaus Schaeck, an expert on bailouts who has served as a World Bank consultant, "has definitely resulted in increased risk."

And while the economy still mostly sucks overall, there's never been a better time to be a Too Big to Fail bank. Wells Fargo reported a third-quarter profit of nearly $5 billion last year, while JP Morgan Chase pocketed $5.3 billion – roughly double what both banks earned in the third quarter of 2006, at the height of the mortgage bubble. As the driver of their success, both banks cite strong performance in – you guessed it – the mortgage market.

So what exactly did the bailout accomplish? It built a banking system that discriminates against community banks, makes Too Big to Fail banks even Too Bigger to Failier, increases risk, discourages sound business lending and punishes savings by making it even easier and more profitable to chase high-yield investments than to compete for small depositors. The bailout has also made lying on behalf of our biggest and most corrupt banks the official policy of the United States government. And if any one of those banks fails, it will cause another financial crisis, meaning we're essentially wedded to that policy for the rest of eternity – or at least until the markets call our bluff, which could happen any minute now.

Other than that, the bailout was a smashing success.

Secrets And Lies Of The Bailout: One Broker's Story

I have a feature in the new issue of Rolling Stone called "Secrets and Lies of the Bailout," which focuses in large part on the seemingly intentional policy of deception in the government's rescue of the financial sector. The government didn't just bail out Wall Street with money: It also lied on Wall Street's behalf, calling unhealthy banks healthy, and helping banks cover up just how much aid they were getting in secret.

Proponents of the bailouts will say that whatever the government did, it worked. The economy didn't collapse as it appeared it might in late 2008, and the stock markets are puffed up all over again, as financial companies in particular are back making huge profits.

But in the course of researching the magazine piece, we discovered definite victims of the myriad deceptions that became a baked-in feature of the bailouts. One of those victims was a southern investment broker who lost lots of his own money, lost money for family members who'd invested with him, and (maybe worst of all) lost plenty of his clients' money, when he made investment decisions based on what turned out to be incomplete information.

If this particular broker had known exactly how far the bailouts reached, neither he nor his clients would ever have lost so much. But during the crisis it was decided, by people deemed more important than small-town investment advisers and their clients, that the full story of the bailouts didn't need to be told.

As a result, George Hartzman and his clients got creamed. In recent years we've heard a lot about how the bailouts saved the world. This is the other side of the story.

***

George Hartzman is easy to like. The easygoing North Carolinian has every salesman's ability to grab you from the first moment with humor and charm, but what makes him a little bit of a different kind of cat – and I suspect some of this change developed after he joined the growing population of financial crisis-era whistleblowers, dismissed from a Wells Fargo brokerage after making complaints about what he felt were bailout-related abuses – is that the humor is often self-directed. He loves to tell stories about all the goofy, sometimes-dicey sales jobs he's taken over the years, and the hard work he put in to get really good at each and every one of them.

"Hell, I even sold encyclopedias," he says, laughing. "You just look 'em in the eye and say, 'Listen, do you want your kids to go to college, or not?'" He laughs again. "What are they going to say?"

Now 45 years old, George as a younger man sold it all – copiers, above-ground aluminum swimming pools, even vinyl siding, a job which he describes as selling "relatively bad things to the relatively elderly." In down times, he waited tables and tended bar at a restaurant/nightclub in a tough section of Greensboro, where he said the rule was, "you don't take out the trash through the back door without somebody with a gun."

But throughout it all, he wanted to be in finance, wanted to buy stocks and bonds and actually make money for people, as opposed to just talking old folks into buying stuff they maybe didn't need. Eventually he got his chance, working at several national brokerage firms through the 2000s, paying his dues as the guy who sucked it up for the endless cold calls.

"Do you have any money, anywhere, that's earning less than 7 percent right now?" he says, chuckling as he quotes his old self. "I must have said that line, I shit you not, not less than 100,000 times."

Eventually, George found himself selling retirement and investment plans as a broker for the granddaddy of Carolinian megabanks, Wachovia. Working out of the Greensboro, North Carolina area, he handled dozens of clients, including himself and several of his family members, and by 2007 had settled in to what he thought was the good life working for Wachovia Advisors, managing tens of millions in assets for the huge national brokerage firm.

In hindsight, it's ironic – given that the vast federal bailouts were what ultimately sank George's career as a broker – that when Wachovia went belly-up in 2008, George's job was initially saved by a bailout. After its collapse (caused in large part by its disastrous 2006 acquisition of subprime-laden Golden West financial), the giant bank was swallowed up in a state-aided merger by Wells Fargo, which received as much as $36 billion in cash and special tax breaks as it was finishing the merger deal.

When the merger was finished, Wells Fargo was the fourth-largest commercial bank holding company in America, and George Hartzman found himself working essentially the same job, only with a new name on his letterhead – Wells Fargo Advisors.

While brokers in most places started taking the big bath in 2007 and 2008 as the subprime market collapsed, George was quietly killing it. In both those years he made very good money for his clients, his family and himself, mainly by shorting the very companies that had inflated the subprime bubble, firms with names like Goldman, Sachs, MBIA and Merrill Lynch.

"I saw it early," he says, a bit immodestly, but with perspective, too. "I was doing great, right up until the time I wasn't."

When I called former clients of George's to check his story, they confirmed that he took a much different and more aggressive approach than your average broker. George's clients seemed to like him a lot, and were impressed by how hard he worked at a job that a lot of storefront brokers just mail in.

"A lot of guys will just tell you that you just have to stay in the market, that in the long run, things always go up," says John Mandrano, a former CPA who trusted a sizable portion of his retirement fund with George. "George was different. He really put a lot of thought into what he was doing. And he invested his own money, and his family's money, so you know he had a stake in what he was doing."

Having made money betting against Wall Street in 2007 and 2008, George planned on continuing the same strategy in 2009, even after the bailouts. In early 2009, he placed a series of short bets against the market, among other things betting against an index of real estate trusts and the S&P 500. He explained to his clients that even though the government and the talking heads in the financial press kept insisting the worst was over, he still thought a lot of firms, particularly financial firms, were in deep trouble.

"I thought they were screwed," he says. "The numbers just didn't add up."

What happened instead is that the stock market went into a prolonged and seemingly miraculous rebound, with the NYSE soaring from the mid-6000s in February of 2009 to over 13,000 in recent months. George couldn't figure out how so many seemingly insolvent companies were doing it – where was the money coming from?

He and his clients started taking a beating in early 2009 as the stock market crept upward. He kept waiting for another crash to come, but a March 2009 news story freaked him out, leading him to worry if maybe he wasn't seeing the whole picture.

George remembers reading about a remarkable incident in which President Barack Obama took time out in the middle of an Oval Office photo-op with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to essentially urge Americans to buy stocks. This is from an old ABC News report:

"What you’re now seeing is … profit and earning ratios are starting to get to the point where buying stocks is a potentially good deal if you’ve got a long-term perspective on it," the president said on a day that trading continued to hover under 7,000.

When the president of the United States starts going out of his way to tell America to buy into the stock market, you have to wonder about any decision you might just have made to bet heavily against him.

"I was like, 'What the hell is that?'" George says. "That had me worried, for sure."

Sure enough, the markets rose, and George eventually pulled all of his short bets and "went to cash," taking his portfolio to money market accounts and other safe harbors, but the damage was done. As well as he'd done shorting Wall Street in 2007 and 2008, he did just as badly in the years afterward.

He lost personally, he lost his family's money, and he was heartbroken to lose money for his clients, with whom he'd consulted closely throughout, evangelically insisting that the fundamentals on Wall Street couldn't possibly hold up for long.

"I'm 68 years old," says one woman who invested a significant part of her retirement fund with George. "I should be retired right now, but I'm not."

George agonized over his mistake, poring over news reports as well as the SEC disclosures and annual reports of all the big banks in search of an explanation, but didn't find one. It wasn't until August of 2011 that George saw a partial explanation.

Bloomberg earlier that year had taken the Federal Reserve to the Supreme Court and won the right to have a historic Freedom of Information Act request honored. The news agency in its FOIA hunt had demanded access to the data from congressionally-mandated one-time audit of America's quasi-public Federal Reserve System.

When the Supreme Court rejected the Fed's demands for secrecy, Bloomberg was handed over the data. The news agency learned that Wall Street companies like Goldman, Citigroup and even Wachovia/Wells Fargo had collectively borrowed upwards of $7 trillion from the Fed through a variety of programs that were never intended to be disclosed to the public. This meant that the government had extended a secret lifeline to Wall Street upwards of ten times the size of the TARP program. The agency reported the sensational news in August 2011 and eventually shared all of its data with the public.

When George saw the Bloomberg story, he was floored. He felt like a fool, having bet against companies that essentially had limitless charge cards with the government all along. Had he known, he insists, he would never have stayed short so long.

Moreover, he believes that many companies that took that secret lending would have been saved if investors knew how much credit they had with the government. He points to his own former firm, Wachovia, which (for example) according to the Bloomberg data borrowed $3.5 billion from the Fed's TAF program on March 27, 2008, never announcing the move. The next day, Wachovia's stock plunged 4 percent.

"I believe that if Wachovia had announced the loan details at the time," George says, "the stock price might have gone up instead."

Even worse, when George checked the SEC disclosures and annual reports of other banks and financial companies, he found something interesting. Some banks, in particular smaller regional banks, did disclose their emergency financing from the Fed. He points as an example to the Carolina-based Union Bank and Trust, which announced its relatively small $5 million lifeline with the Federal Reserve on page 16 of its 2009 Annual Report.

"If some did disclose and some didn't, what the hell was going on?" he wondered.

George wasn't alone in asking that question. As I learned during the course of researching the "Secrets and Lies" piece, the SEC seemingly wondered the same thing when it saw the Bloomberg reporting in 2011. From the feature:

Two former high-ranking financial regulators tell Rolling Stone that the secret loans were likely subject to a 1989 guideline, issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the heat of the savings and loan crisis, which said that financial institutions should disclose the "nature, amounts and effects" of any government aid. At the end of 2011, in fact, the SEC sent letters to Citigroup, Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Wells Fargo asking them why they hadn't fully disclosed their secret borrowing. All five megabanks essentially replied, to varying degrees of absurdity, that their massive borrowing from the Fed was not "material," or that the piecemeal disclosure they had engaged in was adequate.

In any case, when George thought about the issue, he suddenly realized he was in a bind ethically. He wanted to tell his clients about the non-disclosure problem, and how that might have helped cause their losses, but as the SEC's letters make plain, there was really no way to do that without pointing out that his own company, Wells Fargo, was one of the firms that had not disclosed its billions in secret borrowing.

He called the Wells Fargo ethics hotline for guidance, but says he got no help. George says the only response he got from his company was that they had conducted an investigation and months later, closed the matter. Wells Fargo, for its part, declined to address George's situation specifically other than to  say that "all Wells Fargo team members are encouraged to express their concerns and can expect that those concerns will be taken seriously, reviewed and addressed if appropriate."

As for George's concerns about the disclosure issue vis-a-vis Wells Fargo, the bank believes it was never obligated to disclose the borrowing highlighted in the Bloomberg piece. In its response to the SEC on the issue in December of 2011, the company insisted that "our participation in the referenced programs did not materially affect, and was not reasonably likely to have a material future effect upon our financial condition or results of operations."

In early 2009, Wells Fargo had a balance of over $45 billion with the Fed, but apparently even that sum of money fell short of being material.

Anyway, George was eventually fired, for making noise about this issue and one other (more about that some other time). After his dismissal, he began a new life, familiar to many in the crisis era, as a perennially-frustrated whistleblower unable to elicit any serious response from either the authorities or the news media. He appealed to the self-regulating organization that governs investment advisers, FINRA, and also appealed to the SEC, but says he got no help in either place.

The real import of Hartzman's story is that he and his clients lost money when they made what in retrospect turned out to be poor investment decisions, because they were denied access to the same information many of America's leading banks (and, by extension, its leading bankers) had in the years after the crash.

Most galling of all to Hartzman was Bloomberg's analysis which showed that the banks receiving secret bailout monies earned some $13 billion in profits by taking advantage of the Fed's below-market rates.

It was one thing when he'd merely lost money betting against firms without all the data at his fingertips – it was another when companies like his very own former firm Wells Fargo could make (according to Bloomberg) $878 million in profits by availing itself of the secret aid.

"When I saw they made so much profit from this, that's when I got really angry," Hartzman says. "I was like, 'They made $878 million? Hell, no.'"

"That's the thing that really hurts," says the 68 year-old client of George's who lost retirement money. "It's that the banks made money on this, and it really came out of my pocket."

Mandrano, another of George's clients, runs a business restoring historic homes. "It's funny, all this talk about the small businessman, that's who I am," he says. "I've got crews out there. I'm paying people, I'm churning money through the economy, for cleaners, and plumbers, and haulers, and carpenters, and so on. I'm making my contribution. But when you sit there and you lose 20 percent of your retirement because there's no full disclosure, it's a real kick in the gut."

This is the real problem with the bailouts, and the issue we tried to underscore with the "Secrets and Lies" piece. With their hide-and-seek policies, bogus stress testing and stubborn insistence on calling failing banks healthy and publicly endorsing other such fibs, the architects of the federal rescue (from both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as from the Federal Reserve) created a two-tiered market. The new economy has two classes of investors: those who know the real numbers, and those who don't.

So while the proponents of the bailout will argue they were a success, and the covert and overt federal support helped bring the Dow all the way back from below 7,000 to above 13,000 – seemingly a good thing no matter how you look at it – there's another bitter reality, which is that the bailouts officially created a sucker class.

When banks started making fortunes again in 2009 and beyond, it wasn't a victimless situation. There were losers in this trade, too. Hartzman and his clients are examples of the kind of people who lost when the government made decisions about who's entitled to the truth and who wasn't. As one former hedge fund manager put it to me recently, "Joe Sixpack has no chance in this market."

The Rotten Foundations Of US Policy In The Middle East

Thirteen migrant workers, most if not all of them from Bangladesh, died January 11 in a blaze that tore through an overcrowded labor camp set up in a crumbling building in Manama, the capital of the Gulf sheikdom of Bahrain.

Such incidents are appallingly routine in Bahrain and the other monarchical regimes that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. Just last May, a fire in another overcrowded labor camp in Manama claimed the lives of 10 other Bangladeshi workers.

Both the Bahraini monarchy and private construction companies have rejected efforts to require improved housing and safety standards in the industry.

The deadly fire in Bahrain came just two days after the beheading of a Sri Lankan domestic worker in Saudi Arabia that provoked worldwide revulsion. Rizana Nafeek, who had lied about her age and left an impoverished family in northeastern Sri Lanka in search of better wages in Saudi Arabia, was sentenced to die for the death of an infant for whom she had been forced to  care at the age of 17, without either training or experience. Saudi authorities beat a confession out of her that she subsequently recanted, insisting the child had choked while taking a bottle and she had been unable to revive it.

The Saudi monarchy has vehemently rejected international condemnation of the barbaric execution—carried out in violation of international treaties barring capital punishment for alleged crimes committed by minors—calling it an “intervention in its affairs and judicial verdicts.”

Again, this repellant action is by no means an aberration. The Saudi regime executed 79 people by beheading last year and 82 the year before.

According to news reports in the wake of the state murder of Rizana Nafeek, at least 45 Indonesian maids are on death row in Saudi prisons, waiting to be beheaded. There are believed to be Sri Lankan, Filipina, Ethiopian and Indian women domestic workers facing the same fate, but their number is not known.

In many cases, these women have been convicted of murder for defending themselves against violent physical assaults and rape by their employers. In others, women have suffered mental breakdowns after years of abuse and being forced to work 15- and 20-hour days, seven days a week, without breaks, days off or, in many instances, any salary.

Punishment for the severe and often deadly abuse meted out to the 1.5 million female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is rare. Among the more infamous cases was that of Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, an Indonesian house maid whose Saudi employer cut off her lips with a scissors, burnt her scalp with a hot iron and inflicted multiple stab wounds and broken bones over a protracted period of fiendish abuse. A Saudi court acquitted the employer, claiming there was no evidence of torture. In many other cases, women thrown off of buildings have been listed as suicides.

Underlying these atrocities—both the deadly fires and the beheadings—is a system that amounts to a modern-day form of slavery. Traditional chattel slavery, based on the outright buying and selling of human beings, was abolished in the Saudi kingdom only in 1962.

The new system, rather than relying on the abduction and forced enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans, is fed by a globally integrated capitalist system and its impoverishment of billions of people, particularly in Asia, who are forced to seek work abroad.

These workers fall victim to recruiting agencies that charge exorbitant fees for getting a job, forcing the migrants into indentured servitude when they arrive in Saudi Arabia and the other monarchical Gulf States. Once there, they also fall under the kafala, or sponsorship, system, which endows sponsor-employers with unlimited power over the migrant workers. They commonly seize the workers’ passports, making it impossible for them to return home.

Those who try to quit dangerous and exploitative jobs are not allowed to seek employment elsewhere without their sponsor’s permission, and are generally deported, often without their pay. Unions for these workers are illegal, and wage levels have remained stagnant for two decades, even as the cost of living has climbed rapidly. It is common for employers to “rent” out their workers to others to make a profit.

There are some 15 million of these workers in the Gulf States. They account for over half of the workforce and the overwhelming majority of workers in the private sector. It is they who have built the high-rise towers, luxury palaces and highways of Manama, Dubai and Riyadh, paid for with the oil earnings of the parasitic ruling dynasties.

Their abysmal conditions are no secret. They are acknowledged in the annual country reports issued by the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. The report on Bahrain states that domestic workers “had to give their identity documents to employers, had little time off, were malnourished, and were subject to verbal and physical abuse, including sexual molestation and rape.” It went on to note that “in numerous cases employers withheld salaries from foreign workers for months or years and refused to grant them permission to leave the country.” This describes a condition of virtual slavery.

The US State Department found similar conditions in Saudi Arabia, where some 8.5 million foreign nationals toil. In both countries, the reports, noted, political parties are banned, torture is commonplace, censorship is enforced, religious minorities (or, in the case of Bahrain, the Shia majority) are brutally suppressed, and political dissidents are murdered and imprisoned.

These reports, however, are for show. They have no impact on US policy in the region, which rests upon the dictatorial regimes in Saudi Arabia, Washington’s key Arab ally, Bahrain, which hosts the American Fifth Fleet, and Qatar, the site of the Pentagon’s Central Command Forward Headquarters and Combined Air Operations Center.

These are the Obama administration’s key allies in fomenting and arming a sectarian civil war in Syria in the name of “human rights” and “democracy” and preparing a war against Iran.

Nothing serves as a more searing indictment of US imperialism’s predatory policy in the Middle East than the conditions of the overwhelmingly migrant and semi-enslaved working class in these countries and the ultra-reactionary and medieval character of the regimes that rule them.

The foundations upon which this imperialist policy rests are utterly rotten and must produce, sooner rather than later, revolutionary explosions.

Senator Asks CIA Nominee When Drones Can Kill Americans

The man in charge of America’s drone wars will face Senate questioning about perhaps their most controversial aspect: when the president can target American citizens for death.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter on Monday to John Brennan, the White House’s counterterrorism adviser and nominee to be head of the CIA, asking for an outline of the legal and practical rules that underpin the U.S. government’s targeted killing of American citizens suspected of working with al-Qaida. The Obama administration has repeatedly resisted disclosing any such information about its so-called “disposition matrix” targeting terrorists, especially where it concerns possible American targets. Brennan reportedly oversees that matrix from his White House perch, and would be responsible for its execution at CIA director.

“How much evidence does the President need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed?” Wyden, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, asks in the letter, acquired by Danger Room. “Does the President have to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender before killing them?”

Wyden’s questions about the targeted-killing effort get specific. He wants to know how the administration determines when it is “not feasible” to capture American citizens suspected of terrorism; if the administration considers its authority to order such killings inherent in its Constitutional war powers or embedded in the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force; and if the intelligence agencies can “carry out lethal operations inside the United States.” Wyden also expresses “surprise and dismay” that the intelligence agencies haven’t provided him with a complete list of countries in which they’ve killed people in the war on terrorism, which he says “reflects poorly on the Obama administration’s commitment to cooperation with congressional oversight.”

Thus far, senators on the intelligence panel have been more concerned about Brennan’s possible role in national-security information leaks and the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program than in using Brennan’s nomination to peer into the decision-making surrounding Obama’s counterterrorism strikes. Wyden writes that it is “critically important” for Congress to understand “how the executive branch understands the limits and boundaries of this authority.”

In September 2011, a U.S. missile strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, al-Qaida’s most prominent English-language propagandist and an American citizen. Weeks later, another strike fired by a U.S. drone killed Awlaki’s 16-year old son, Abdulrahman.

The Obama administration has never disclosed the evidence behind its claims that the elder Awlaki posed such an imminent danger to Americans that prompted killing him without due process of law, prompting a major debate about the legality of the killing. (Administration officials have said even less about the justification for killing the 16-year old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.) Members of the Awlaki family, the New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union have variously sued the government for additional information about the strikes, all unsuccessfully. Earlier this month, a federal judge in New York ruled that the government was not required to disclose the legal analysis undergirding the Awlaki targeting decisions, even as the judge herself blasted the administration for embracing “certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”

Wyden doesn’t specifically ask for information about the killing of Awlaki and his son. He’s after the more general rules embraced by the administration about when killing a U.S. citizen is permissible in the U.S. shadow wars. Those rules, apparently written in 2010 by Justice Department lawyers David Barron and Marty Lederman, were described in a New York Times piece but remain secret. Wyden doesn’t ask for their disclosure, just for the administration to permit members of the intelligence panel to read them.

“For the executive branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to knowingly kill American citizens but refuse to provide Congress with any and all legal opinions that explain the executive branch’s understanding of this authority represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative,” Wyden writes.

As the Senate intelligence panel’s leading civil libertarian, Wyden frequently calls on the administration to explain the classified reasoning behind its most controversial national security practices. He’s accused the administration of adopting a private interpretation of the Patriot Act so expansive, for instance, that it amounts to “secret law” authorizing surveillance. Most often the administration stiffs Wyden. The National Security Agency has yet to disclose how many Americans are caught up in its dragnet for terrorist communications, one of Wyden’s major preoccupations, telling the Senator that even disclosing that number would violate Americans’ privacy.

Brennan remains likely to receive Senate approval for his CIA nomination. But until now, senators on the panel that will handle his confirmation had seemed less than interested in exploring the more discomforting aspects of the counterterrorism strategy colloquially referred to as the “drone war.”

Wyden doesn’t endorse or reject Brennan for the top CIA job. Wyden spokesman Tom Caiazza tells Danger Room that ”the senator is looking forward to a frank and substantive conversation on these issues and of course the results will be considered in his decision making.”

35 Statistics About The Working Poor In America That Will Blow Your Mind

In America tonight, tens of millions of men and women will struggle to get to sleep because they are stressed out about not making enough money even though they are working as hard as they possibly can.  They are called "the working poor", and their numbers are absolutely exploding.  As a recent Gallup poll showed, Americans are more concerned about the economy than they are about anything else.  But why are Americans so stressed out about our economic situation if things are supposedly getting better?  Well, the truth is that unemployment is not actually going down, and the real unemployment numbers are actually much worse than what is officially being reported by the government.  But unemployment is only part of the story.  Most American workers are still able to find jobs, but an increasing proportion of them are not able to make ends meet at the end of the month.  Our economy continues to bleed good paying middle class jobs, and to a large degree those jobs are being replaced by low income jobs.  Approximately one-fourth of all American workers make 10 dollars an hour or less at this point, and we see them all around us every day.  They flip our burgers, they cut our hair and they take our money at the supermarket.  In many homes, both parents are working multiple jobs, and yet when a child gets sick or a car breaks down they find that they don't have enough money to pay the bill.  Many of these families have gone into tremendous amounts of debt in order to try to stay afloat, but once you get caught in a cycle of debt it can be incredibly difficult to break out of that. So what is the solution?  Well, the easy answer would be that we need the U.S. economy to start producing more good paying jobs, but that is easier said than done.  Our big corporations continue to ship huge numbers of good paying manufacturing jobs out of the country, and millions of Americans have been forced to scramble to find whatever work is available.  Today, there are so many very talented American workers that are trapped in low wage work.  According to the Working Poor Families Project, "about one-fourth of adults in low-income working families were employed in just eight occupations, as cashiers, cooks, health aids, janitors, maids, retail salespersons, waiters and waitresses, or drivers."  A lot of those people could do so much more for society, but they don't have the opportunity.

Sadly, the percentage of low paying jobs in our economy continues to increase with each passing year, so this is a problem that is only going to get worse.  So don't look down on the working poor.  The good paying job that you have right now could disappear at any time and you could end up joining their ranks very soon.

The following are 35 statistics about the working poor in America that will blow your mind...

#1 According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 146 million Americans are either "poor" or "low income".

#2 According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 57 percent of all American children live in a home that is either "poor" or "low income".

#3 Back in 2007, about 28 percent of all working families were considered to be among "the working poor".  Today, that number is up to 32 percent even though our politicians tell us that the economy is supposedly recovering.

#4 Back in 2007, 21 million U.S. children lived in "working poor" homes.  Today, that number is up to 23.5 million.

#5 In Arkansas, Mississippi and New Mexico, more than 40 percent all of working families are considered to be "low income".

#6 Families that have a head of household under the age of 30 have a poverty rate of 37 percent.

#7 Half of all American workers earn $505 or less per week.

#8 At this point, one out of every four American workers has a job that pays $10 an hour or less.

#9 Today, the United States actually has a higher percentage of workers doing low wage work than any other major industrialized nation does.

#10 Median household income in the United States has fallen for four consecutive years.

#11 Median household income for families with children dropped by a whopping $6,300 between 2001 and 2011.

#12 The U.S. economy continues to trade good paying jobs for low paying jobs.  60 percent of the jobs lost during the last recession were mid-wage jobs, but 58 percent of the jobs created since then have been low wage jobs.

#13 Back in 1980, less than 30% of all jobs in the United States were low income jobs.  Today, more than 40% of all jobs in the United States are low income jobs.

#14 According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the middle class is taking home a smaller share of the overall income pie than has ever been recorded before.

#15 There are now 20.2 million Americans that spend more than half of their incomes on housing.  That represents a 46 percent increase from 2001.

#16 Low income families spend about 8.6 percent of their incomes on gasoline.  Other families spend about 2.1 percent.

#17 In 1999, 64.1 percent of all Americans were covered by employment-based health insurance.  Today, only 55.1 percent are covered by employment-based health insurance.

#18 According to one survey, 77 percent of all Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck at least part of the time.

#19 Millions of working poor families in America end up taking on debt in a desperate attempt to stay afloat, but before too long they find themselves in a debt trap that they can never escape.  According to a recent article in the New York Times, the average debt burden for U.S. households that earn $20,000 a year or less "more than doubled to $26,000 between 2001 and 2010".

#20 In 1989, the debt to income ratio of the average American family was about 58 percent.  Today it is up to 154 percent.

#21 According to the Economic Policy Institute, the wealthiest one percent of all Americans households on average have 288 times the amount of wealth that the average middle class American family does.

#22 In the United States today, the wealthiest one percent of all Americans have a greater net worth than the bottom 90 percent combined.

#23 According to Forbes, the 400 wealthiest Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.

#24 The six heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton have a net worth that is roughly equal to the bottom 30 percent of all Americans combined.

#25 Sadly, the bottom 60 percent of all Americans own just 2.3 percent of all the financial wealth in the United States.

#26 The average CEO now makes approximately 350 times as much as the average American worker makes.

#27 Corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are at an all-time high.  Meanwhile, wages as a percentage of GDP are near an all-time low.

#28 Today, 40 percent of all Americans have $500 or less in savings.

#29 The number of families in the United States living on 2 dollars a day or less more than doubled between 1996 and 2011.

#30 The number of Americans on food stamps has grown from 17 million in the year 2000 to more than 47 million today.

#31 Back in the 1970s, about one out of every 50 Americans was on food stamps.  Today, about one out of every 6.5 Americans is on food stamps.

#32 More than one out of every four children in the United States is enrolled in the food stamp program.

#33 Incredibly, a higher percentage of children is living in poverty in America today than was the case back in 1975.

#34 If you can believe it, the federal government hands out money to 128 million Americans every single month.

#35 Federal spending on welfare has reached nearly a trillion dollars a year, and it is being projected that it will increase by another 80 percent over the next decade.