Roger Lowenstein has a big piece out in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, an apology for Wall Street—duly celebrated by The New York Times’s Andrew Ross Sorkin on Twitter as “courageous” and “probably right”—arguing “Wall Street: Not Guilty.”
What’s with our elite financial journalists?
Problem is, this piece is based on a straw man: that fire-breathing critics of Wall Street like Taibbi and, um, Joe Nocera and, well, the news reporters at The New York Times and NPR, think that the crisis was caused by financial fraud alone.
But none of them—not even Taibbi—thinks fraud was the sole cause of the crisis, which had many contributing factors, including excess Chinese savings, regulatory capture, financial wizardry, and, yes, fraud.
Lowenstein himself concedes that the “crisis was accompanied by fraud” and that “mortgage fraud exacerbated the bubble,” but writes like he’s offering the pitchfork-wielding mob of well-paid journalists a new insight that the crisis was “multi-causal.” I’m not aware of anybody who thinks it wasn’t.
And if the crisis was “accompanied” by fraud, as Lowenstein himself says, then the headline—”Wall Street: Not Guilty”—is just wrong isn’t it? Bizweek should have avoided the temptation for sensationalism.
Besides being a name-brand business journalist, Lowenstein is also an outside director of the well respected Sequoia Fund, which has some of its money in (non Wall Street) bank stocks. I don’t think this is a huge deal, but it’s an unusual enough arrangement for a journalist that Bloomberg BusinessWeek should disclose the affiliation, which it doesn’t here. It’s not about conflict, but it is about perspective. Lowenstein, in this piece at least, is excusing people he is working among, a financial-world culture he is working in. State house reporters don’t accept political appointments both for appearance reasons and to help them maintain critical distance.
In any case, here’s his summary of his opponents’ arguments:
There are those who have implied that prosecutors are either too cozy with Wall Street or too incompetent to bring cases to court. Thus, in a measured piece that assessed the guilt of various financial executives, New York Times columnist Joe Nocera lamented that “Wall Street bigwigs whose firms took unconscionable risks aren’t even on Justice’s radar screen.” A news story in the Times about a mortgage executive who was convicted of criminal fraud observed, “The Justice Dept. has yet to bring charges against an executive who ran a major Wall Street firm leading up to the disaster.” In the same dispassionate tone, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered chimed in, “Some of the most publicly reviled figures in the mortgage mess won’t face any public accounting.” New York magazine saw fit to print the estimable opinion of Bernie Madoff, who observed that the dearth of criminal convictions is “unbelievable.” Rolling Stone, which has been beating this drum the longest and with the heaviest hand, reductively asked, “Why isn’t Wall Street in jail?”
Taken from the top, these sentiments imply that the financial crisis was caused by fraud; that people who take big risks should be subject to a criminal investigation; that executives of large financial firms should be criminal suspects after a crash; that public revulsion indicates likely culpability; that it is inconceivable (to Madoff, anyway) that people could lose so much money absent a conspiracy; and that Wall Street bears collective guilt for which a large part of it should be incarcerated.
These assumptions do violence to our system of justice and hinder our understanding of the crisis.
Note the “measured piece” qualifer on the Nocera quote. That’s a euphemism for: A column Nocera wrote about how prosecutors were probably right not to bring charges against executives, who he thinks were dumb, not criminal. But Lowenstein would have you think Nocera and his ilk think taking big risks should mean jail time, as if Joe wants investigators to swarm Vegas when some guy bets it all on black. Nocera wasn’t saying that any more than any of the other journalists quoted here meant what Lowenstein says they did. Even Madoff didn’t really imply what Lowenstein says he did.
Lowenstein dismisses the rabble wanting Wall Street accountability as “armchair prosecutors” with “populist notions,” emblems of the Paranoid Style in American Politics with parallels to the “dismal historiography of JFK assassination buffs to the beliefs that Washington was implicated in Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11,” saying “it’s easier for people to believe that some bad actor is the cause of bad things.”
Well, yes. This wasn’t a natural disaster, but that doesn’t mean evil puppetmasters set out to crash the global economy on purpose.