Five years ago, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and the global financial system were not blown up by subprime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations, or credit default swaps. They were not blown up by greed or fraud, alone. The financial crisis that left millions of people still out of work was caused by an idea: the idea that unregulated financial markets are always good and that we can rely on the self-interest of bankers to improve all of our lives.
The ideology of free financial markets gained sway in the 1990s, with Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve and Robert Rubin at Treasury, and was not seriously contested in Washington before 2008. It was a Wall Street-to-Washington consensus that spanned bankers, lawyers, lobbyists, journalists, college career counselors, legislators, regulators, and the highest reaches of the Clinton and Bush administrations. It gave us derivatives non-regulation, consumer non-protection, the end of Glass-Steagall, creative capital accounting, regulatory arbitrage, and, ultimately, tens of thousands of empty houses rotting in the desert. Ultimately it delivered a financial shock from which the world has still not recovered.
For a brief moment, when it seemed the economy could grind to a halt, it was unthinkable that we would ever return to business as usual. At a low point, even Greenspan admitted that he had made a mistake. Five years later, however, the ideology of financial deregulation is back. And while not completely uncontested, it appears to be comfortably ensconced everywhere that matters.