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Wall Street banks and the big lie

Having helped bankrupt the country, big Wall Street banks are now revealing their intellectual and moral bankruptcy in slogans and ads that massively misrepresent reality in a desperate, and frankly despicable, attempt to protect their profits.

Seeing the ad, I am reminded of a long joke told about two childhood friends who met again in the Romanian version of the Gulag, when Nicolae Ceausescu was dictator of the then-communist country. I will spare you all the juicy details, but one friend was amazed to see the other.

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“How can you be in this prison camp?” he inquired. “You were a leading party member — you were Ceausescu’s personal chef, for heaven’s sake. What are you in here for?”

“For stealing,” replied the chef.

“For stealing? Everybody steals,” replied the friend, shocked by the chef’s revelation.

“Yes,” said the chef, “but let me illustrate the difference between my offense and theirs with a story from our youth. One very hot summer day I ran into Vlad, who was on his way to the swimming pool and asked me to join him.

“ ‘I can’t,’ I replied, ‘I’ve been kicked out of the pool.’

“ ‘Kicked out of the pool? For what?’

“ ‘For peeing in the pool,’ I admitted.

“ ‘For peeing in the pool?’ he responded in amazement. ‘Every kid pees in the pool.’

“ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but not from the high diving board!’ ”

Lots of special interests stretch the truth in issue advocacy ads, but Wall Street is peeing on the American people from a breathtakingly high perch in its latest ads.

Pretending they had never wanted government assistance to remain solvent, the big banks claim that Wall Street reform “could lead to more big bank bailouts.”

“Could” is a very slippery word. The clear implication of the ad is that reform would lead to more bailouts. Of course, the bill could also lead to the end of the federal deficit or an invasion from Mars. Indeed, this column could lead Wall Street banks to write me a check for $1 million.

Those scenarios are about as likely to occur as the one posited by the ad. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) bill specifically prohibits the use of any funds for “bailing out” financial institutions. As George W. Bush-appointed FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair averred, “It makes them [bailouts] impossible, and it should. We worked really hard to squeeze bailout language out of this bill. The construct is you can’t bail out an individual institution — you just can’t do it.”

Moreover, the ad claims these bailouts to come will be “paid for by hidden taxes on your pensions and retirement accounts.” The Senate Wall Street reform bill contains no such taxes, period. Banks may be asked to pay back taxpayers for the bailouts. Big bank CEOs may see that as a “hidden tax” on their outsized bonuses, but under no construction can it be construed as a tax on your IRA or pension.

In a truly death-defying contortion, Wall Street banks are financing an ad asserting that Wall Street reform needs to “work for Main Street, not Wall Street.” So let’s get this straight. Wall Street is upset that the reform bill is too good for them and does too little to help ordinary people — completely unbelievable.

Instead of making a real argument against this bill on the merits, which Wall Street apparently does not have, the only strategy available to protect their profits is the “big lie.”

Our precious First Amendment protects its right to lie in public policy debates, but brazenly peeing from the high diving board makes the industry deserving of exile to the Gulag — or at least of the tough regulation it is trying so desperately to avoid.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.