Jacobin - May 24, 2021

Perhaps the most revealing passage in Barack Obama’s 2020 memoir, A Promised Land, comes toward the end of his recollections on the 2009 financial crisis and his administration’s response to it. For Obama — who never once seems to have seriously considered a proactive or aggressive response to Wall Street chicanery — the dilemma his team faced had primarily to do with political management. As such, he tells us, they attempted to “straddle the line between the public’s desire for Old Testament justice and the financial markets’ need for reassurance.” The key moment comes later in the chapter as the former president reflects on the now common charge that he could and should have been tougher on Wall Street:

If it were possible for me to go back in time and get a do-over, I can’t say that I would make different choices. In the abstract, all the various alternatives and missed opportunities that the critics offer up sound plausible, simple plot points in a morality tale. But when you dig into the details, each of the options they propose — whether nationalization of the banks, or stretching the definitions of criminal statutes to prosecute banking executives, or simply letting a portion of the banking system collapse so as to avoid moral hazard — would have required a violence to the social order, a wrenching of political and economic norms [my emphasis], that almost certainly would have made things worse. Not worse for the wealthy and powerful, who always have a way of landing on their feet. Worse for the very folks I’d be purporting to save. Best-case scenario, the economy would have taken longer to recover, with more unemployment, more foreclosures, more business closures. Worst-case scenario, we might have tipped into a full-scale depression.

Without litigating the administration’s entire response to what was then the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it’s worth underscoring the choice facing Obama as he himself chooses to render it. For the president and his advisors, public outrage toward Wall Street (and the corresponding desire to see executives put in jail) was ultimately driven by a kind of reductive moralism out of step with reality. The idea of “Old Testament justice,” in his telling, might have looked good on paper, but would have done nothing to make the wealthy lose any sleep and, still worse, would have ended up hurting the most vulnerable.

It’s a cynical, self-interested, and unconvincing narrative, to be sure. But it also misrepresents a big part of the case for prosecuting white-collar criminals. “Lock them up!” certainly was a ubiquitous sentiment toward banks and bankers after the financial crisis, and no one can deny it had a lot to do with a simple (and entirely justified) popular desire for retribution. That was far from the whole story, though, and even a cursory glance at a few major cases of corporate malfeasance over the past decade shows us exactly why. ...
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