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Why it’s good to question the nation's economic policymakers

Lauren Lyster
Daily Ticker

Time heals all wounds. Perhaps that's why Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein can now express concerns about income inequality in the U.S. on network TV, and lament what happens when too much of the GDP goes to too few of the people in a country. Just a few years ago, during the financial crisis and its aftermath, Goldman Sachs was known as the "bank everyone loves to hate" and likened to a "vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity." The CEO would not exactly be considered the authority on the plight of the 99%.

When it comes to the government side of the crisis, Matt Stoller, a congressional staffer who worked on Dodd-Frank financial reform in 2009 and 2010, contends there are problems with former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's recounting of his role in the crisis response. Stoller makes the case in a  6000-word critique of Geithner's portrayal of himself and his actions in his book "Stress Test".

Stoller tells us to take the accounts of people involved in policy during the financial crisis and match them up with each other to see why policies were pursued. While he says he enjoyed reading Geithner's book, he "kept noticing things didn’t quite match up with what was reported at the time." He makes his argument in Vice Magazine, and examples he cites include conflicting statements on Geithner's part about the AIG bonus scandal and AIG bailout, and misleading recounting of his speeches while president of the New York Federal Reserve bank.

But with the financial crisis five years behind us, what are the lessons looking forward?

When it comes to evaluating the people tasked with making important decisions about banking, the economy and the financial system, Stoller advises some healthy skepticism. "As much as people in general say they don’t trust politicians and public officials, people actually do give a lot of credence to people with titles and fancy suits who seem to know a lot about policy," he tells us. "It’s not clear to me that this trust is actually warranted ... people should have more faith in their own judgment ... If they see something that doesn’t look right, it may not be right."

Related: “There’s no way out”: Not much ECB can do to help Europe’s economy, Mark Dow says

As for economic policy and thinking about the next crisis, he stresses the importance of making sure there are ethical people in key roles who have a track record of standing up to people in positions of power.

But for all the criticism of Geithner that he was too friendly to big banks, Yahoo Finance Senior Columnist Mike Santoli argues that, in some respects, higher capital requirements and narrower regulatory boundaries have done what bank critics wanted Geithner to do. Santoli cites anemic bank profitability, lower compensation levels as compared to pre-crisis times and sleepy trading volumes as evidence that banking has become more humble and conservative.

Related: The joyless Wall Street rally is leaving Wall Streeters behind

Stoller responds that "it’s hard to argue you would see a ramp up of banking system to boom times right after a crash ... but you can look at bank concentration, derivatives books, the potential for hidden leverage, flash trading, abuses in the private equity system, and you can see that the banking system really is structurally unsound."

Related: Fannie and Freddie: Too big to wind down

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