As with many books I have read, I first heard of the book BAILOUT while watching an interview with the author Neil Barofsky on the Daily Show. Barofsky was intriguing as he bantered with Jon Stewart, showing a sense of humor that failed to cover up what appeared to be a sense of moral indignation.
Though I had read a number of books and articles trying to understand the recent economic collapse in America, I had not read any from a government insider till this one. It is subtitled, "How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street."
Of course, I had to purchase the book, and when I received it I tore into with relish and my iridescent yellow marker. I found it to be not only informative, but in a sense, inspirational; it is one of the most significant books I have read recently. And Barofsky writes in an entertaining style; I found the book hard to put down.
The book is a first person narrative of Neil Barofsky's experiences as Special Inspector General for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), the government program designed to bail out those in distress caused by the mortgage crisis. The program was initiated under the Bush administration and continued and expanded during the Obama administration. The Inspector General's responsibility was to investigate and prosecute frauds which might come up during the actual dispersal of funds. As well, the Inspector General served as a sort of a conscience or "back-seat driver" to the Treasury Department in the administering of these funds
Barofsky was apparently chosen for this position as being well qualified because of his background as Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. In that position, he had successfully prosecuted mortgage fraud and even spent some time investigating and prosecuting drug lords and FARC guerillas in Colombia.
But what Barofsky ran into in the world of Washington power politics was something quite different. He tells us early on of the warnings he received; to quote one such warning: "Mister Inspector General, you have a wonderful opportunity here. An opportunity not too many people get. The opportunity to make a real difference. An opportunity to serve the American people in a true and meaningful way. And if you do this job the right way, you'll never be able to get a job again" (page xxiii).
The politics he struggled with was not the party politics of Democrat vs. Republican, but the power politics of the Treasury Department and other turf wars. He had to serve under an uncooperative Treasury Department and at the same time to be answerable to Congress.
Barofsky is unafraid to name names and to affix blame where blame is due (and occasionally credit where credit is due). There are a few good guys and plenty of bad guys, though once in a while some shine. Timothy Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury, definitely does not come across as one of the good guys; Elizabeth Warren, Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, does. Ironically, the members of Congress (Republicans and Democrats), especially those of the various House and Senate committees, usually come across as good guys.
There are many reasons, I suppose, for picking up and reading this book, some good, some not so good. If one reads it just to be informed, this is the book. The author not only explains his role and the role of TARP, but also gives a clear description of the financial manipulations that brought about the mess in the first place.
If, however, you're looking for fodder to reinforce your political prejudices, right or left, you'll find enough blame to go around. One administration allowed the financial collapse to occur, the other intensified the crisis by wrong-headed attempts to cure it. Take your pick.
If you're one of those who believes that America is going to hell in a hand-basket, you'll also find plenty of data to reinforce that view. As the author tells us, "the entire crisis was unleashed by the greed of a handful of executives" (page 19). The United States' government, the banks and those who ran the bailout program were all apparently working together to guarantee the United States' taxpayers "cover the losses" for any risk these greedy executives took.
Of course, if you believe as I do in the biblical doctrine of original sin and/or Paul's maxim, "The love of money is a root of all evils" (1 Timothy 6:10), you'll find plenty here to reinforce those beliefs.
But although reading this book could make the reader extremely pessimistic and discouraged, I found it, as I said above, inspirational. Here is a man who, if we are to believe him (and I do), is a man of integrity and who had the moral courage to resist and oppose the power politics he had to deal with. Though he doesn't present himself as a hero, he comes across as a David enforced by his own moral convictions, standing up against the Goliath of Washington politics.
A few of Barofsky's mantras continually came out throughout his story:
-- "Do the right thing, not the easy thing." The temptation was and is always there to just go along to get along. This was an answer to the question. "What would Sullivan do?" Richard Sullivan had been Barofsky's chief and mentor in prosecuting narcotics cases in his previous job. Sullivan is described as "a tall intense deeply religious and who never touched a drop of alcohol in his life," and who "worked tirelessly."
-- "... the only way to do this job was not to think about what I would be doing next." This assignment was a dead end. As he had been warned, he would make more enemies than friends. This was not a step upward on the career path. Fortunately not long after Barofsky finally resigned, he received an offer from his alma mater, New York University School of Law, to teach. I only hope he continues to teach and impart ethics to coming generations of lawyers.
-- "The worst thing that happens, we go home." Though he made enemies they could do no permanent harm.
I have, in my long life been confronted many times with power politics. So has my wife Uni. Undoubtedly some who read this have or will. I found myself identifying with the author in his struggles. I have seen the same or similar power politics in the office, engineering department, college, even the churches I have pastored. Private turf wars as those in power are more concerned about their own territory or sphere than about simply doing the right thing.
The book does not end on an optimistic note. Matters have continued and still continue from bad to worse. I felt left with little hope for improvement in America's situation.
Yet Barofsky had the satisfaction that he had done his job well; he and his department had prosecuted some frauds; and some of his input had kept matters from being even worse.
I was encouraged that there are some who want to simply "do the right thing." Isn't that what every one of us should desire? Especially those who claim to be followers of Jesus? Shouldn't this be my desire?