The President’s Economic Forum held here Tuesday raises the question, “By how much don’t they get it?” The range of opinion at this shindig went from A to B. This wasn’t a forum, it was a pep rally. Sis-Boom-Bah City for the old cheerleader. President George W. Bush said Baylor University “put on a good show.” Got to agree. It was one of the most sophisticated phony political events I have ever witnessed.
Such attention to the details of stagecraft–the lovely flag painting behind them at the plenary session, the helpful hints on the backdrops: “Corporate Responsibility,” “Better Health Care,” etc., for those too dumb to figure it out from the vapid speeches. The wonderfully artificial inclusion of “real people”–all of whom just happen to think George W. Bush is divine. This Potemkin Village of diversity lacked just one thing–anyone with a good idea. Any 10 ex-employees of Enron could come up with a long list of recommendations on how to fix things so this doesn’t happen again. But they weren’t invited.
The country is in a world of economic trouble because of an immense tax cut for the rich and 20 years of deregulation. So everyone at Potemkin Village favored more tax cuts for the rich and slashing that terrible government regulation that is strangling big business today.
We could dismiss this exercise in complacent stupidity for the silly political charade it actually was, but there was a real danger at Waco, too: the horrible possibility that George W. Bush actually believes that was a cross-section of America.
Searching out the few grains of sense in that sea of twaddle, I found Charles W. Schwab of the eponymous brokerage firm making one excellent recommendation. Although he surely dislocated his shoulder from patting himself on the back, he is quite right about “building a Chinese wall” between those who recommend stocks and the investment banking end of the big financial firms. (This was also described as “building a firewall” so often that one befuddled participant wound up calling it “a Chinese firewall.”)
This would theoretically prevent brokers from urging their clients to buy stocks they privately describe as “dogs” and “crap” just so they can get a cut of the investment banking fees. Schwab suggested the Securities and Exchange Commission mandate the creation of these Chinese firewalls and then require the financial firms to certify that they are in place. Unkind people might describe that as a (gasp!) regulation.
Muriel Siebert of another eponymous firm, a peppy dame (Upon hearing herself described as “a legend,” she said, “As long as I’m a living legend.”), teed off on derivatives, the only participant I heard do so. It’s good to know the crying need for regulation of derivatives has not gone entirely unnoticed.
One participant from the construction industry in the “Job Creation” panel actually uttered the words “need for affordable housing.” An alert Democrat, if there is one, would smell the beginnings of a happy coalition there.
In the meantime, the president dropped in on the assorted gabfests, repeating the same fatuous remarks. “I want a self-regulating [financial] industry.” “I want to see a self-policing industry.” I want to see pigs fly.
Faith-based securities regulation–it is a concept. “Apart from the government,” he began at one seminar, “what can we do?” Is he the president of something besides the government?
While the most striking feature of the pointless gabfest was what wasn’t heard–not a soul mentioned expensing stock options–there were also some breathtaking whoppers. Ann Combs, an assistant secretary of labor, said, “Our [private] pension system is the envy of the world.” Fifty percent of Americans have no pension at all other than Social Security.
There was a lot of this self-congratulatory gush about, “We have the world’s best whatever.” I haven’t seen any polls on the state of envy in the rest of the world, but I do know what they think of President Bush.
Here’s a joke making the rounds in Europe: Bush, Tony Blair, and Jacques Chirac are holding an economic summit. While Chirac maunders on about something, Bush leans over and says to Blair, “The trouble with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur.”
OK, let’s do a quick review of things that might have been considered at the Economic Forum had any real real people been there: giving workers the right to elect the trustees of their retirement funds, making all corporate directors independent, forbidding management to spend company funds on electing its preferred candidates, banning stock options entirely, repealing the banking deregulation act, holding the rest of the tax cut, stopping loans on 401(k)s …. Darn, out of space already.
Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.