Tomgram: Steve Fraser, The End of a Gilded Age

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Among the many media spectacles of the moment, the most unnerving is undoubtedly the crisis on Wall Street that has already essentially toppled Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Merrill Lynch, and — probably not last and certainly not least — the gigantic insurance company AIG, which has just been given $85 billion in taxpayer moneys to liquidate itself. Before we’re done, that hoary old oxymoron of the Left, “late capitalism,” may gain new life.

Elsewhere on the planet, it turns out, it was more obvious that the U.S. was in crisis. One small sign of the changing state of the globe’s “sole superpower” is that, even before banking institutions started to tumble off walls like so many Humpty Dumpties, the International Monetary Fund, that dominatrix of global capital, was planning to pay Washington a working visit. This is the sort of thing you expect, with great trepidation, if you’re Haiti, or Pakistan, or Malawi, or Argentina on the brink of financial meltdown — but the United States? Nonetheless, according to NPR’s David Kestenbaum, “The U.S. Treasury says America has now agreed to get a stability assessment from the IMF. The announcement didn’t get much attention, but officials at the IMF expect to start examining U.S. finances in the next couple [of] months.”

Welcome to the Third World, America. Now, hold your hats while the whirlwind blows and the stock market goes into heart-attack mode. Steve Fraser, an expert on Gilded Ages (and how they end), as well as the author of a superb new book on our financial “masters of the universe” from the eighteenth century to the present, Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, brought up the dreaded “D” word (for depression) this April at TomDispatch when, in the mainstream, pundits were still wondering whether we might possibly, actually, really be edging toward, or near, a recession. He wrote at the time: “The current breakdown of the financial system is portentous. It threatens a general economic implosion more serious than anyone has witnessed for many decades. Depression, if that is what it turns out to be, together with the agonies of a misbegotten and lost war no one believes in any longer, could undermine whatever is left of the threadbare credibility of our Gilded Age elite.” Now he’s being quoted on the front page of the New York Times. How times (of every sort) have changed in just the space of a few months… Drawing on his knowledge of the history of Wall Street and Washington, now let him offer you now a little perspective for the months to come. Tom

Wall Street and Washington

How the Rules of the Game Have Changed

By Steve Fraser

What is Washington to do as the financial system collapses? Clearly, stark differences in approach as well as in public policy have already emerged. Bail-out Bear Stearns and pump up the brokerage and investment business with new lines of credit. Nationalize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on the backs of the taxpayer — but let Lehman drown. Tell the financial community to save itself, after which Bank of America salutes and buys Merrill Lynch. Then, the Fed gets cold feet and decides it can’t let an institution the size of the insurance giant AIG go under as well. Washington is left staring into the abyss. The old rules no longer apply.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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