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Don’t Let Go of the Anger

By: William Cohen, New York Times Opinionator Blog


One of the most frustrating facts of the recently abated financial crisis is that those who might have been partly responsible for it have got off scot-free. The only two people prosecuted criminally — the Bear Stearns hedge fund managers Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin — were found not guilty by a jury in Brooklyn. Other potential culprits — Angelo Mozilo, chief executive of Countrywide Financial, Joseph Cassano, chief executive of AIG Financial Products, and Dick Fuld, the chief executive of Lehman Brothers — were either slapped with a small civil penalty, in the case of Mozilo, or the Justice Department made the decision not to prosecute after months of investigation.

What’s worse, not only did bankers escape with no penalty, they walked off with millions of dollars in their pockets while American taxpayers got left holding the bag. Since the crisis was caused by greedy decisions made by one leader after another at various Wall Street firms and at other businesses, like mortgage originators and credit ratings agencies, that attached themselves to Wall Street like pilot fish on a shark, the dearth of prosecutions, or even attempted prosecutions, seems especially unconscionable. The least the Justice Department could do, in declining to prosecute, would be to make available the reams of documents on which it based its decisions, so that the American public can understand why prosecutors let these people walk. Without seeing what the prosecutors have seen, we are left with a sense of frustration and injustice.

It has always been a mystery to me why the American people’s reaction to this lack of accountability has been so consistently passive. Why is it that thousands will protest, for weeks, the efforts by the Republican governor of Wisconsin and his Republican allies in the state legislature to strip Wisconsin’s public employees of hard-won benefits and contractual rights, but there is barely a peep uttered — save from a handful of Code Pink activists — in the face of trillions of dollars of American treasure used to bail out the very banks and securities firms that caused the Great Recession in the first place? Nor is there a whisper of collective protest when the very banks we bailed out turn around and pay their thousands of employees nearly $150 billion in compensation and bonuses in 2010 — as if they were deserving — while the rest of us continue to suffer from stubbornly high unemployment, miniscule interest rates on our savings and fast-rising commodity prices (as on oil and food) that Wall Street speculators, in part, drive higher and higher.

Indeed, what we hear from the likes of Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Bob Diamond, the chief executive of Barclays PLC, is that the time has come to stop bashing the banks and their executives for their roles in causing the Great Recession. “Not all banks are the same and I just think that this constant refrain ‘bankers, bankers, bankers’ is just unproductive and unfair,” Dimon told a panel at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, in January. “People should just stop doing that.” At the same conference, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy lashed out at Dimon. “Don’t be accusatory of us,” Sarkozy told him in front of a group of hundreds. “The world has paid with tens of millions of unemployed, who were in no way to blame and who paid for everything.”

Sarkozy was right then, and he is still right: We must not let the passage of time dim our ire at those who have yet to be held responsible for causing this financial crisis. We must register our dissatisfaction — in the streets if need be — with a system that rewards the fat cats for their outrageous behavior at our collective expense and that re-established the status quo on Wall Street without a moment’s reflection on whether the system itself needed an overhaul.

Now, it seems, some people are sufficiently fed up to “fight back,” as they are saying. This Thursday, after a week of demonstrations, including at Goldman Sachs’s new headquarters on West Street in Manhattan and at Bank of America’s New York new headquarters on West 42nd Street, a group calling itself has organized a series of protests on and around Wall Street itself to “make big banks and millionaires pay.” The group is a coalition of labor unions, community and progressive groups that were catalyzed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed city budget that cuts childcare services, teachers and public safety, among others, while continuing to give tax benefits to corporations that remain in the city.

“We are connecting the dots from the big banks that crashed our economy, destroyed millions of jobs and foreclosed on millions of family homes to the human impact here in the financial capital of our country,” said Michael Kink, the executive director of Strong Economy for All Coalition and one of the event’s organizers. In an interview, he cited similar protests being organized in Chicago, Charlotte and Oakland, and cited specifically his outrage at how Oakland is forced to close its public libraries — in order to save $5 million a year — at the same time the city still pays Goldman Sachs $5 million a year for interest-rate swaps. He wonders, where is the shared sacrifice? “This is a national effort to hold banks accountable,” he said.

Where such protests take us is never certain, of course. They might lead to an emboldened grass-roots effort to push politicians and regulators in Washington to insist on some measure of accountability for Wall Street executives, or they could just be more meaningless blips in the never-ending 24-hour news cycle. Either way, the protests are long overdue.

(This is my last regular Opinionator column after nearly 18 months. It has been an honor to be a small part of The Times’s opinion family.)

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 12, 2011

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Wall Street firms paid nearly $150 billion in bonuses in 2010; the figure reflects both compensation and bonuses.