Obama and the Big Dogs
The Nation, April 22, 2009
The financial crisis poses the first great moral dilemma of the Obama presidency. Sometime in the next few months, he will be compelled to choose between his technocratic inclinations--rescuing certain financial institutions deemed "too big to fail"--and the obvious moral wrongness of his policy of rewarding the very players who caused our national disaster. The broad public does not doubt that this is morally wrong. I saw a Zogby opinion poll the other day that said only 6 percent of the public supports the financial bailouts. Obama is on the wrong side of that bipartisan consensus.
The moral dilemma in the financial crisis is oddly parallel to Obama's reluctant approach on the torture issue. The president bravely made public the sickening documents from the Bush administration that reveal how CIA and Justice Department officials rationalized their illegalities and authorized crimes against humanity. Yet the president said it would be wrong to prosecute (or even investigate) any of the CIA agents or military officers who committed these crimes. Likewise, we are told it would be wrong to punish the financial malefactors or look too closely into how they engineered the gross fraud and false valuations that destroyed trillions of dollars in American wealth. Let's not dwell on the past, the president says, let's look forward.
But everything Obama does now--or fails to do--becomes an inescapable precedent for the future, defining the true meaning of law and moral principle. The president's rationale on government-led torture sounds dangerously close to the line of defense invoked by Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. We were only following orders. CIA barbarians are invited to hide behind that excuse.
So in a sense are the bankers from Wall Street. They were merely doing what the financial markets wanted and what the government allowed. Rescuing these players now, while declining to force fundamental structural changes on the banking system, would essentially ratify the bankers' arrogant beliefs. They are too important to fail. The government will never let it happen. Despite their destructive behavior, they will be allowed to remain in power and free to do it all again. (more)