December 22, 2011, 5:00 am
No One Is Above the Law
By SIMON JOHNSON
Simon Johnson, the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, is the co-author of “13 Bankers.”
The American ideal of equal and impartial justice under law has repeatedly been undermined by attempts to concentrate power. Our political system has many advantages, but it also provides motive and opportunity for resourceful people to become so strong they can elude the legal constraints that bind others.
The most obvious example is the oil and railroad trusts at the end of the 19th century. A version of the same process is happening again today, but what has become concentrated is not a vital energy source or the nation’s transport arteries but rather something much more abstract – financial sector risk.
In early 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner reportedly said to President Obama and senior members of the new administration, with regard to the financial system (as described by Ron Suskind on Page 202 of “Confidence Men”:
The confidence in the system is so fragile still. The trust is gone. One poor earnings report, a disclosure of a fraud, or a loss of faith in the dealings between one large bank and another — a withdrawal of funds or refusal to clear trades — and it could result in a run, just like Lehman.
Three years later, the megabanks are even bigger, as is the risk they concentrate (see my recent testimony to the financial institutions subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee for details). Curiously, their precariousness, as much as their power, is shielding these behemoths from the enforcement of financial fraud laws.