History has a special purgatory where it sometimes stashes feckless nations punch drunk on their own tragic choices: the realm where anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares. We’ve surely crossed the frontier into that bad place in these days of dwindling winter, 2013.
Case in point: Mr. Obama’s choice of Mary Jo White to run the Securities and Exchange Commission. A federal prosecutor back in the Clinton years, Ms. White eventually spun through the revolving door onto the payroll of Wall Street law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, whose clients included Too Big To Fail banks JP Morgan, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and UBS AG, defending them in matters stemming from the financial crisis that began in 2008, as well as other companies that needed defending from allegations of financial misconduct, such as the giant HCA hospital chain (insider trading), General Electric (now a virtual hedge fund with cases before the SEC), and the German-based Siemens Corporation (federal bribery charges).
A republic with a sense of common decency — and common sense — would have stopped the nomination right there and checked the “no” box on Mary Jo White just for violating the most basic premise of credibility: that trip through the revolving door that shuttles banking regulators from the government agencies to the companies they used to oversee and sometimes back again.
Has there not been enough national conversation about the scuzziness of that routine to establish that it’s not okay? Does it not clearly represent the essence of dysfunction and corruption in our regulatory affairs? Didn’t President Obama promise to seal up the revolving door? So how could Mary Jo White possibly be taken seriously as a candidate for the job? And how is it possible that everyone and their uncle, from The New York Times editorial page to the Sunday cable news political shows to the halls of congress, is not jumping up and down hollering about this? Well, because anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares.
The funny part is that, when challenged over her past connections to the banks and companies she would now have to regulate, Mary Jo White offered to recuse herself from future cases involving them. So, from the get-go as SEC head, Ms. White would not concern herself with the doings of JP Morgan, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley? How is it that gales of laughter did not blow Mary Jo White clean out of the hearing room? Is there not another qualified person from sea to shining sea who could come in and do the job without one hand tied behind his or her back?
Now it also turns out that upon leaving Debevoise & Plimpton, Ms. White is scheduled to collect monthly retirement checks from the company amounting to a half million dollars a year — that’s for life, by the way — while she supposedly runs the SEC. How is that not a conflict of interest? The remedy proposed by Ms. White and her attorneys was for her to take the retirement loot as a lump sum during her tenure as SEC chair, after which she could revert to collecting her pension in the $42,500 monthly payouts. Pardon me, but, well …what the fuck? What planet are we on?
As if that’s not enough, Ms. White’s husband, John W. White, is a partner at another giant Wall Street law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, which frequently tangles with the SEC on behalf of its clients. Mr. White proposed to change his pay structure while his wife runs the SEC. More gales of laughter. He is also on the advisory committee of the Financial Standards Accounting Board, the group that oversees national accounting practices and which, in 2009, infamously changed its Rule157 so that TBTF banks could “mark to fantasy” the fraudulent CDOs and other bond-like “innovative” securities that they created — many of which they had to eat after the housing bubble bust when the collateral for these swindles lost its value and the “innovators” could no longer pawn the stuff off on credulous pension funds and other client “muppets.”
The silence over this disgraceful matter — and many others like it, including the dead hand in the empty suit posing as US Attorney General — indicates that not only is the rule of law extinct in this country, but so are public figures of principle and credible news organs. Nobody has made a noise about it. Anything goes, nothing matters, and nobody cares. So, the objection to it has to come from outside the authorized channels. And the consequences will mount outside the fortress of lies that the establishment has become.