David Rothkopf

Capitalism is in need of a good Reformation…

“Wait a minute…” Those were allegedly the final words of Pope Alexander VI back in August of 1503. I was thinking of fat, old, syphilitic, corrupt, murdering, adulterous Alexander just this morning. This particular Pope, known before his papacy as Rodrigo Borgia, who had so many mistresses he makes modern America’s politicians and talk show ...

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“Wait a minute…”

Those were allegedly the final words of Pope Alexander VI back in August of 1503. I was thinking of fat, old, syphilitic, corrupt, murdering, adulterous Alexander just this morning. This particular Pope, known before his papacy as Rodrigo Borgia, who had so many mistresses he makes modern America’s politicians and talk show hosts look chaste by comparison, is also distinguished by the fact that he was the father of, among many others, Cesare and the notorious Lucrezia Borgia. (To give you a taste for the man, upon becoming Pope he annulled his daughter’s previous marriage so he could marry her off in a lavish Vatican ceremony to a relative of one of the cardinals who supported his papacy even as rumors circled of her incestuous relationship with one of her brothers. And the Heene family thought they had what it takes to make a good reality show…)

I thought of old Rodrigo as I flipped through a pile of clippings that I had set aside during the past couple of days. I started collecting the stories last week. The first were clippings about the record round of financial community bonuses in the U.S. and in the U.K. Then, as all this was happening, was Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s FT op-ed calling for financial reform. As I mentioned before I found the juxtaposition uncomfortably calculated.

A couple days later, there was the story announcing that former Goldman Sachs’ VP Adam Storch was being named Chief Operating Officer of the “new and improved” SEC enforcement division. I have no doubt that Mr. Storch is an excellent fellow and a perfect choice … other than the fact that he worked at Goldman. Does anyone think about the optics of these things? Or more than the optics, do they ever consider just how genuinely inappropriate such a hiring might be?

Of course, that’s a rhetorical question. Some people do think about it. Just not people doing the hiring in the administration. Hence the articles in my pile of clips about the big bonuses that senior advisors to Tim Geithner got from big Wall Street houses prior to signing up to help devise the plans to “fix” Wall Street. I know some of these guys very well, consider them friends, consider them eminently qualified to be doing their jobs … and yet, something gnaws at me about all this, an insensitivity on the part of the people who were putting together the administration team about what was really at stake in the financial crisis. It seems they felt the issue was more fixing the immediate problem than it was fixing the enduring problems in a system that once again has Wall Street executives lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills while unemployment hits record levels (see Mort Zuckerman’s strong piece on this in today’s FT) and home foreclosure are forcing former homeowners to live on the streets as never before. In any event it seems like they were really stopping to ask whether something big had changed … or needed to.

Paul Krugman gets it, has all along and has written about it again in today’s Times. Frank Rich, in yesterday’s Times wrote a column capturing some of the anger that people feel about the power of Goldman and the other big banks and the utter unwillingness of Washington to do anything other than offer the occasional talk show tsk-tsk in response to the current return to profligacy (or the return of big lenders like Citi and Bank of America to losses after a momentary, bailout induced spate of profits). 

Meanwhile, John Harwood in the Times writes about Larry Summers’ wise silence on sensitive economic questions while failing to go further and ask why it was that this week’s tsk-tsking assignments went to Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Valerie Jarrett — successors in function to the troika that once ran Ronald Reagan’s White House (James Baker, Michael Deaver and Ed Meese). On the one hand the question is interesting because it leads one to other questions, like why the folks from the president’s morning economic briefing who are being most prominently rolled out are not actually the ones who are the economic professionals? Could it be that the administration political brain trust feels the economic team has lost too much credibility by their minimalist, go-slow approach to reform? I think that would be a miscalculation because the future effectiveness of Geithner and Summers will depend on their being seen as the architects of substantially (and accelerating) reforms.

(Of course another question raised by the appearance of the Big Three on the Sunday shows is whether or not the administration really is being some so Office-of-the-President centric that it is all head and no arms and legs, kind of like one of those big-brained creatures from outer space or our future that we were led to believe would evolve from societies that didn’t require physical exercise. The critique, provided to me this weekend by a prominent diplomat who has lived in Washington a long time, is that the administration has no trouble coming up with ideas or giving speeches but it has yet to put an effective implementation apparatus in place. It is kind of the Marvin the Martian model of governance.)

That particular aside aside, the pile of clippings grew this morning with the Wall Street Journal noting in its particularly “fair and balanced” way that the criticism of Wall Street from Emanuel and Axelrod was more tempered than in the recent past, suggesting that at least as far as the newspaper of record of the financial community was concerned, the White House wasn’t too het up about all these fat pay checks. Apparently swine flu worries us but an epidemic of swinishness does not. At least the Journal seems to hope so.

And so, reflecting on all these clips, I started thinking to myself, is it capitalism? Could Michael Moore be right? (That seems so unlikely…) It’s troubling to me, a dyed-in-the-wool practicing capitalist. And I’ll have to admit I am still a long way from coming to a good answer about just how we have gone wrong and what needs to be done to fix a system that is producing greater inequality than ever and that is so apparently corrupt that even those from whom you expect big reform have either been co-opted or, alternatively, are simply reluctant to toss these particular money changers out of our particular temple (the small “d” democratic one). 

But my first instincts are what brought me back to good old Pope Rodrigo the Base and Repulsive. Because it strikes me that the issue isn’t capitalism per se. Because 21st Century Wall Street is to capitalism as Pope Alexander VI was to the teachings of Jesus Christ. There was a connection but it was remote and observed more in the breach than in the honoring of the essentially good underlying ideas.

And that’s where I take some comfort. It’s not that we need a new economic ideology. We’re just in dire need of a Reformation. (Although I for one could do without some of the wars, inquisitions, and public executions of the last one.)

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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