The new proposed tax on banks — 15 basis points on all liabilities — is not about revenue or responsibility: It’s about politics. President Obama is running away from Wall Street as fast as he can, but Wall Street has a funny way of catching up with him.
As I reported some months ago (“Losing Gordon Gekko,” subscription required), Wall Street is, contrary to stereotype, a strongly Democratic place: Goldman Sachs gave 73 percent of its 2006–08 political money to Democrats, who also took in a majority of the political contributions in that same cycle from Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, UBS, and Lehman. Democrats took in the majority of the hedge-fund money and the lion’s share of political contributions from six of ten non-financial Big Business sectors: law, health care, defense contractors, communications/electronics, finance/insurance/real estate, and the catch-all category that includes chemical firms, retailers, manufacturers, food processors, and other industrial operators. E. J. Dionne, writing in The New Republic, argues that Obama fears being permanently tagged as a “Wall Street liberal” — which is what he is — and this, not recouping losses from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, is what the bank tax is all about.
But if the Democrats are gluttons for Wall Street money, Wall Street is a glutton for punishment: The president and his party in Congress are engaging in truly dishonest demagoguery — as National Review has noted, TARP losses aren’t coming from the banks, but from largely Democratic messes including AIG, the automakers’ bailouts, and Rep. Barney Frank’s beloved foreclosure-prevention program. But even as the Democrats demonize Wall Street and vilify Big Business in general, the pinstripes-and-obscene-bonuses set continues to write big checks to Obama’s party.
For the 2010 election cycle, Democrats have an enormous lead in almost every business sector they denounce: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the hedge-fund industry has, so far, given 70 percent of its money for this cycle to Democrats. The numbers for other industries are comparable — insurance: 53 percent to Democrats; mortgage bankers and brokers: 55 percent to Democrats; finance and credit companies: 57 percent to Democrats; pharmaceuticals: 58 percent to Democrats; utilities companies: 59 percent to Democrats; automakers: 64 percent to Democrats; private-equity and investment firms: 74 percent to Democrats. And to top it off, the venture-capital industry has given 75 percent of its contributions to Democrats. There are very few sectors that outperform VC guys in their fealty to the Democratic party — except for usual suspects such as the teachers’ unions (92 percent to Democrats, and it’s a mystery who those Republicans are who took in the other 8 percent).
If you needed any more evidence that this is about politics and not about smart financial regulation, consider that Obama did not even consult his own FDIC chief, Sheila Bair, before announcing his bank-tax plan. Sheila Bair is not exactly a candidate for conservatives’ unalloyed admiration, but the FDIC is one of the few institutions that have performed well during the financial crisis, and her plan for establishing an FDIC-style resolution authority that would charge too-big-to-fail financial institutions an insurance premium in exchange for the government’s support of them in times of financial crisis is something that is endorsed both by many Democrats and, in principle, by the editors of National Review. But such a plan would not allow the president to preen on television and deliver homilies about fat cats and their wicked ways. Meanwhile, note that the president’s allegedly anti-fat-cat agenda is filtered through a bunch of Wall Street guys: Tim Geithner, Rahm Emanuel, etc.
The bank tax is not only a new and unneeded burden on our struggling financial sector, it’s also a long-term competitive disadvantage for American industry: Finance is a cutthroat world, and New York City is in a constant battle with London, Shanghai, and other financial centers for jobs and investment. If it inspires even a handful of firms to relocate, Obama’s new tax could end up costing the government money in the form of forgone revenue from personal-income taxes, corporate-income taxes, and capital-gains taxes. Wall Street’s loss will be the City of London’s gain. The real mystery is why Wall Street is still paying for the privilege of being scourged.
– Kevin Williamson is an NRO deputy managing editor.