ECONOMIC SCENE: Four ways the recession could change US capitalism

Banking reform, deglobalization, redistribution of wealth and growth of the public sector are all potential impacts of the economic recession on the US.

Service Employes International Union (SEIU) march in Detroit at a local bank in support of jobs for janitors in 2005. The SEIU is lobbying for banking reform, one aspect of American capitalism that may emerge from the recession vastly different from when it entered.

Just as the Great Depression changed the course of American capitalism, the “great recession” promises to nudge it in new directions. Nowhere are the pressures for change greater than in banking. Critics from the right and the left are calling for tough reforms.

For example, without reform in Congress, the nation’s biggest banks could in effect become “public utilities,” warns Henry Kaufman, a veteran Wall Street economist and hardly a leftist. In a new book, “The Road to Financial Reformation,” he suggests that the biggest financial institutions need to shrink by spinning off assets. Otherwise, the 20 largest conglomerates will remain too big to fail and federal regulators would have a huge incentive to, in essence, socialize them and play a role in allocating credit. In 1990, the 20 largest companies controlled 12 percent of US financial assets, he points out. Today, they control more than 70 percent.

Not rescuing the banking giants last year would have led to chaos and a real depression, Mr. Kaufman argues in a phone interview. But he’s concerned that the will to make decisive reforms is diminishing as the financial crisis fades.

Some activists are gearing up to keep the political pressure on.

“While ordinary Americans are still struggling to stay afloat, the bankers are back to business as usual, paying out billions in bonuses, making profits on the backs of taxpayers who bailed them out, and throwing out roadblocks to meaningful regulatory reform,” notes a new study by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Actual and potential costs of the financial rescue put US taxpayers on the hook for $17.8 trillion, more than the annual gross domestic product of the US, that is, its output of goods and services, the SEIU calculates.

So the union, the nation’s largest, is planning dozens of demonstrations across the US to press Congress to reform meaningfully the financial system so that such a disaster can be avoided in the future. These gatherings will culminate at the annual meeting of the American Bankers Association in Chicago in late October when community and farmers groups will join union members in demanding reform, says Stephen Lerner, assistant to SEIU’s president.

There are other ways the great recession could push American capitalism in new directions: deglobalization, for example.

The internationalization of finance and trade could partly reverse course as nations seek greater control of their own economic fate, says Mark Weisbrot, codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal Washington think tank. He calls it “a return to sanity.”

Another forecast: Wealth and income, which has been increasingly concentrated at the very top of the income ladder in recent decades, will be spread more evenly. Some 85 percent of 2002-07 income growth went to the top 1 percent. But since then, stock market and property losses of the well-to-do have begun to reverse the trend. Mr. Weisbrot maintains that more competition in business and finance could keep that process going and help prevent a revival of greater income being shoved into the hands of the rich. “The right-wing drift has probably reached its peak,” he says.

Mr. Lerner blames the depth of the recession partly on the fact that middle-income and poor Americans had benefited so little from economic growth in recent years.

A final forecast is already widely anticipated: The size of the US government will increase modestly because of antirecession efforts and possible healthcare reform.

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