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August 13, 2013

Vanity Fair Editor's Letter: The Pariah Shortage

“As far as the two costliest fiascoes of the last decade go—the Iraq war and the subprime-mortgage crisis—it’s difficult for many of us to move on in the absence of any sort of rational resolution. The Obama administration has shown scant interest in getting to the bottom of how we let these two disasters bring the country almost to its knees. Which is something of a mystery. We used to have a greater sense of outrage about blunders of this magnitude and a thirst for justice. Many of the architects of the Vietnam War became near pariahs as they spent the remainder of their lives in the futile quest to explain away their decisions at the time. (And the ones who didn’t should have.) In the wake of Watergate came resignations, imprisonments, and an all but certain impeachment.

In the absence of a cathartic resolution to the past five years of financial misery brought about by the banking industry, the savings-and-loan crisis of the 80s and 90s may be instructive. Until 1980, S&Ls were small, locally owned institutions that basically took money from depositors and lent it back out in the form of mortgages and for the purchase of cars and such. The description encompasses pretty much the same language used by George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life to explain the operations of his bank to customers desperate to take their money out in reaction to the false panic fostered by evil old Mr. Potter. Carter- and Reagan-era deregulation gave S&Ls a remit to behave more like banks—but without the federal oversight to protect depositors and ward against excessive risk. With the rules all but eliminated, the tiny institutions became honeypots for rogues and cheats, and by the mid-1990s a third of the nation’s S&Ls had failed. The cost to taxpayers came to nearly $124 billion. The Justice Department went to work, marching the miscreants who had brought about the crisis into court. The department’s success rate in winning convictions approached 90 percent as more than a thousand people involved in the crisis were found guilty, many of them carted off to jail, often in prison jumpsuits and handcuffs.

But that was then, and this is now. The deregulation-fueled subprime-mortgage explosion and crisis of the past decade wiped out nearly 500 banks and, according to the nonprofit group Better Markets, will end up costing taxpayers at least $12.8 trillion. That’s more than 100 times the cost of the S&L crisis. In the five years since the subprime-mortgage meltdown, a turn that all but hobbled the world’s economy, the Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder has brought just two criminal cases against senior executives of major Wall Street financial institutions. And it lost one of them.”

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Read the full Vanity Fair Editor’s Letter here

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