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Elites Blasted at Elite Summit

BY Ari Melber | Tuesday, May 5 2009

"I don't want to be an apologist, especially not for this zip code," said Joshua L. Steiner, co-president of the Quadrangle investment firm, as he scanned the well-heeled crowd gathered in lower Manhattan for The New Yorker Summit. Steiner, a former U.S. Treasury official during the Clinton administration, cautioned against the "temptation" to inflict pain for its own sake, or chase "speedy" fixes. Yet at this salon on Obama's agenda, Steiner is -- as conference keynoter Malcom Gladwell might say -- an outlier.

Most of the economic heavyweights here indicted Wall Street and Washington, without falling into any discernible partisan patterns.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former top economist for John McCain, praised Obama's economic moves so far, and disagreed with many financial opinion leaders by backing "harsher" penalties on Wall Street to address "overconfidence." The day began with Gladwell blaming the financial crisis on bankers' overconfidence and hubris, rather than the typical explanations of incompetence or regulatory failure.
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Economist Robert Kuttner, who recently published a book on Obama's economic challenge, focused more on regulation. The problem is not simply regulatory failure, Kuttner stressed, but "regulatory corruption." He name-checked Democrats Chuck Schumer, Bob Rubin and Larry Summers, along with the usual free market GOP, for building a dangerously under-regulated financial system. In terms of political orientation, Kuttner is a liberal who says he now defines himself in "semi-opposition" to the Obama administration.

In a similar vein, Naomi Klein, a Nation colleague and author of several celebrated economics books, urged Obama supporters to spike the t-shirts and apply more pressure on the new president. She praised Obama as a good mediator, but stressed that means he is open to pressure, which makes it even more vital that progressives counter the power and activism deployed against the administration by financial elites. She also knocked the bank bailouts for failing to stimulate lending, and instead advocated homeowner assistance, channeling FDIC chair Sheila Bair.

The summit continues with appearances by Elizabeth Edwards, Howard Dean, Sy Hersh and Amb. Thomas Pickering, and The New Yorker is trying hard to open up proceedings online, with its own live-blogging and Twitter outreach.