To many presidential idolaters, this era will be known as the Age of Obama. But, in reality, we live in what may best be called the Age of Bernanke. Essentially, Obamaism increasingly serves as a front for the big-money interests who benefit from the Federal Reserve's largesse and interest rate policies; progressive rhetoric serves as the beard for royalist results.
Overall, the impacts of ultralow interest rate, cash-machine policies of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke trump everything else. The presidential stimulus was, at best, modestly effectively, and certainly did little to turn around the fortunes of most Americans or spark much economic growth. Unemployment remains stuck at around 8 percent and 8.5 million workers have exited the labor force.
But the Bernanke policies have succeeded in reshaping the economic landscape in ways that, while good for the plutocracy and Wall Street, are not particularly positive for the vast majority of Americans.
Many of the biggest losers in the Bernanke era are key Democratic constituencies, such as minorities and the young, who have seen their opportunities dim under the Bernanke regime. The cruelest cuts have been to the poor, whose numbers have surged by more than 2.6 million under a president who has promised relentlessly to reduce poverty.
Things, of course, have not too great for the middle-age and middle-class – more of them now supporting both aging parents and underemployed children. Median income in America is down 8 percent from 2007, and dropping. Things, in reality, are not getting better for anyone but the most affluent.
A particular loser has been small business. As we enter the sixth year since the onset of the Great Recession, and nearly four years after the "recovery" officially began, small business remains in a largely defensive mode. Critically, start-up rates are well below those than following previous downturns in 1976 and 1983. The number of startup jobs per 1000 – a key source of job growth in the past – over the past four years is down a full 30 percent from the Bush and Clinton eras. New firms – those five years or younger – now account for less than 8 percent of all companies, down from 12 percent to 13 percent in the early 1980s, another period following a deep recession.
With demand and growth still weak, small business enters the new year with among the lowest expectations of any large economic sector. As Gallup points out, one in five small companies expects to lower its employee count, one in three expect to decrease capital spending and almost as many expect to be in more severe cash-flow troubles by the end of the year.
This decline of small-business sentiment constitutes arguably the biggest reason for our poor job-creation numbers. If small business had come out of the recession maintaining just the rate of start-ups generated in 2007, notes McKinsey, the U.S. economy would today have almost 2.5 million more jobs than it does.
One source for this decline lies in the difficulties faced by smaller community banks, which tend to be those most likely to lend to entrepreneurial firms. Jeff Ball, chairman-elect of the California Bankers Association and founder of Whittier-based Friendly Hills Bank, suggests the Fed's policies – as well as growing regulatory policies – has led to an unprecedented concentration of financial assets in the hands of a few large "too big to fail banks" while the number of smaller community banks has been shrinking.
"Everywhere you turn there's a 'gotcha' from the regulators," Ball notes. "The big banks can deal with the regulations far more easily than the community banks. And because some banks are perceived as 'too big to fail,' there's easier access to credit, and they are perceived to be better to invest in."
So, who have been the big winners in the Age of Bernanke? The very people who were supposed to be the bête noires of the age of Obama: the large financial institutions. In 2013, the top four banks controlled more than 40 percent of the credit markets in the top 10 states, up by 10 percent from 2009 and roughly twice their share in 2000. At the same time, since the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, there are some 330 fewer small banks. Under the current regime, the oligopolization of the credit markets will continue apace, as much, or even more, than if Mitt Romney had won the presidency.
Under these circumstances, it's not surprising that large financial institutions and hedge fund have enjoyed close-to-record profits under Obama. This fall, for example, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan announced record profit. And despite widespread condemnation their executives have continued to enjoy outsized compensation, often greater than under George W. President Bush.
Unlike smaller firms, or the middle class, the big financial institutions have feasted like pigs at the trough, with the six largest banks borrowing almost a half-trillion dollars from Uncle Ben Bernanke's printing press. While millions of Americans have lost homes and much of their net worth, there has been not a single high-level prosecution by the Obama administration of the grandees of the very financial giants at the heart of the mass misery.
Even the nascent housing recovery – which could create wealth for the middle class – appears largely to be creating opportunities for wealthy investors. In California, as well as other hard-hit real estate markets, such as in Florida, Arizona and Nevada, private investors constitute a large portion of buyers. The big private-equity firm Blackstone recently announced plans to buy $100 million in homes every week.
These wildly divergent results between the hoi polloi and the financial elites do not seem to bother our "organizer in chief," particularly with re-election behind him. Instead, the Bernanke regime seems to be cementing a strong alliance of convenience between the government sector – which needs low interest rates to keep funding itself – and those with the easiest access to cheap money.
Some observers, such as former Clinton Administration advisor Bill Galston, suggest we could see the emergence of a closer political alliance between big business and the public sector interests. Democrats, he suggests, have a natural alliance with larger firms, not only in the financial industry, while small-business lobbies remain "a building-block of the Republican base."
This new corporatism that is becoming an integral part of the supposedly middle-class oriented Democratic Party. Close Obama advisers, like disgraced investment banker and political fixer Steven Rattner, Obama's czar for the auto bailout, justify collusional capitalism, both in China and in America's "too big to fail" regime.
The reality remains that, rhetoric aside, corporate cronyism remains at the core of this administration and, sadly, the once-proudly populist Democratic Party. After his confirmation, we can expect former Citigroup profiteer Jacob Lew to follow Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, working along with Bernanke, to make sure the big Wall Street firms continue to thrive – even if the rest of us don't.
All this is reminiscent of something out of the declining days of the Roman Empire. The masses get bread (food stamps) and circuses, with virtually all of Hollywood and much of the media ready to perform on cue. The majority, losers in the Bernanke economy, lack the will and, maybe, the attention span to realize what is happening to them.
"The Roman people are dying and laughing," the fifth-century Christian writer Salvian wrote. Like America today, entertainment-mad Rome suffered from a declining middle class, mass poverty and domination by a few wealthy patricians, propped up by a compliant government. Unless Americans of both left and right wake up to reality, our civilization could suffer a similar inexorable decline in the Age or Bernanke.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.