Since Christmas, I’ve been working my way slowly through George Packer’s masterpiece The Unwinding, which chronicles the slow decay of American society and politics over the past generation in poignant prose that follows the struggles and triumphs of a handful of more-or-less-ordinary citizens, using them to illuminate the story of a nation. It climaxes with the events following the 2008 financial crisis, which revealed how thoroughly corporate money and power had taken the American political process captive. This passage was particularly eye-opening:
“The previous October, in the last month of the [Obama] campaign, Connaughton had picked up signs from [Delaware senator] Kaufman that the Obama team wanted to bring Robert Rubin on as Treasury secretary. ‘Don’t you realize that half the country wants to hang Bob Rubin?’ Connaughton asked when Kaufman expressed enthusiasm at the prospect. Kaufman would later say, ‘It was like a car had broken down and we needed a mechanic.’ Obama, inexperienced in government and a novice in finance, seemed to believe that Rubin and his followers were the only competent repairmen available.
No more proof was needed that the establishment . . . would emerge from the disaster in fine shape. The establishment could fail and fail and still survive, even thrive. It was rigged to win, like a casino, and once you were on the inside, you had to do something dramatic to lose your standing. . . . Rubin was no longer viable for Treasury, but his people were practically the only candidates under consideration by Obama, who, after all, had fought his way into the establishment from farther back than any of them. Michael Froman, Rubin’s chief of staff under Clinton, later a managing director at Citigroup, introduced Rubin to Obama, and he continued working at the bank while serving on Obama’s transition as personnel director, then collected a $2.25 million bonus before joining the administration. Jacob Lew, another Citigroup executive, became deputy secretary of state with a $900,000 bonus in his pocket. Mark Patterson, a Goldman Sachs lobbyist, was hired as chief of staff at Treasury despite the lobbying ban. Timothy Geithner, a Rubin protégé and the architect of the bailouts, was appointed Treasury secretary and survived the revelation that he had flagrantly underpaid taxes to the agency he was going to lead. Larry Summers, whose meaty fingerprints were all over the pro-bank policies of the late nineties, and who earned millions in speaking fees from various future bailout recipients, became the leading economic adviser at the Obama White House. Even Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, a career public servant, had made a cool $16.5 million at a Chicago investment bank in the thirty months he spent between government jobs. All at the top of their field, all brilliant and educated to within an inch of their lives, all Democrats, all implicated in an epic failure—now hired to sort out the ruins. How could they not see things the way of the bankers with whom they’d studied and worked and ate and drunk and gotten rich? Social promotion and conflict of interest were built into the soul of the meritocracy. The Blob was unkillable.”