Why Wall Street accountability matters as much as torch and pitchfork futures

With workers all over the globe trudging through a catastrophic recession, it’s almost a given that governments will be battling the economic slide for a long time. Part of the effort to rebuild must involve new rules and regulations, but meaningful systems for economic accountability will be just as essential. If we do not hold the reckless executives who caused this crisis accountable for their actions, we risk regressing into similar turmoil in the near future.

We all know that times are tough, and almost all of us agree on the cause: A massive Wall Street risk-binge combined with an almost total failure of regulatory oversight. It’s surprising that few meaningful criminal charges have been filed amid what may very well be the worst financial crisis in history. Bernie Madoff will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars, but the subprime mortgage brokers who specialized in predatory loans — and the Wall Street banks that bought them — have yet to face consequences in court.

Wall Street icon Goldman Sachs has weathered the economic downturn better than many of its Wall Street brethren. Much of the company’s resiliency, however, stems from its ability to secure billions upon billions of dollars of bailout financing from the U.S. government. Over at AlterNet, Jim Hightower blasts Goldman for its multiple avenues of taxpayer support and emphasizes that only the notorious Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) comes with any strings attached whatsoever. While Congress attached some very modest restrictions on executive compensation to the TARP bailout, the FDIC and the Federal Reserve have provided big banks with trillions in loans and guarantees completely free of restrictions on how these perks are deployed.

Goldman received $10 billion under TARP, which the company hopes to repay soon to shrug off those CEO pay limits. When the government bailed out AIG, $12 billion of the funds were directed Goldman’s way. But perhaps the greatest and lowest-profile outrage comes in the form of the FDIC’s Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program. Hightower notes that the FDIC has guaranteed $28 billion of Goldman’s recently issued corporate debt without imposing any restrictions on the Wall Street giant. In short, if Goldman were to default, the government would pay off its investors. This taxpayer guarantee has allowed Goldman and many of its banking peers to secure capital at exceptionally low rates, helping the firms survive during a time when any financing is hard to come by.

Even if Goldman is able to repay its TARP money, the company remains thoroughly dependent on taxpayer assistance. Once the TARP funds are paid off, Goldman will be free to pay its executives whatever it wants — even when that salary is subsidized by American tax dollars.

That’s a pretty perverse definition of accountability.

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