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The New Goldman Sachs? BlackRock Sees Clout Growing as Biden Taps Two Execs to Top Economic Posts

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Image Credit: Reiss Center // Mandel Ngan/Reuters

For his incoming economic team, President-elect Joe Biden has picked several people associated with the investment giant BlackRock, which has been called “the fourth branch of government.” This includes his choice of Brian Deese, a former adviser to Barack Obama, to be his director of the National Economic Council. Deese was the global head of sustainable investing for BlackRock, which is the world’s largest asset manager, with over $7 trillion in its portfolio. This comes as progressives are demanding a Cabinet free of Wall Street influence. “BlackRock has very smartly cultivated its reputation as a sort of 'good guy' on Wall Street” that is contradicted by their conduct, notes Kate Aronoff, staff writer at The New Republic. “Time after time, they have sought to shirk regulation and — in the last year especially, and while Brian Deese has been there — really greenwashed their image.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to look at look at President-elect Joe Biden’s choice of Brian Deese, the former adviser to Barack Obama, to be the director of the National Economic Council. Deese was not present on the stage Tuesday when Biden announced his economic nominees. After leaving the White House, he became global head of sustainable investing at the investment giant BlackRock. This is Deese speaking to Christiane Amanpour earlier this year about BlackRock’s climate plan.

BRIAN DEESE: The most important thing to identify is not necessarily are you going to divest from entire sectors or segments, but, instead, where are those companies and where are those business models that are most prepared for this transition. And so, we spend a lot of time asking the question, not necessarily are you going to exit the entire oil and gas industry or all utilities globally, but, instead, within those sectors, which are the companies that are the most prepared, that are investing the most in the clean technologies of the future, and which of those companies are less prepared.

AMY GOODMAN: Deputy treasury secretary nominee Wally Adeyemo also has ties to BlackRock. He’s the former chief of staff to BlackRock’s chief executive, Larry Fink.

In addition to Briahna Joy Gray, I want to bring in Kate Aronoff. She is a staff writer at The New Republic. Her latest piece, just out, “The Problem with Putting a BlackRock Alum in Charge of Greening the Economy,” it follows up on her story in June that asked “Is BlackRock the New Vampire Squid?” She’s the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.

Kate, if you can talk about the choice of Brian Deese?

KATE ARONOFF: Sure. Thanks for having me.

So, Brian Deese has spent a lot of time in Washington and has spent a lot of time at BlackRock, right? So, a lot of the sort of talk about Brian Deese’s nomination in the last couple of days, since sort of rumors came out about him being appointed to NEC, has focused on that he’s a good person, that he spent time in the Obama administration working on things like the Paris Agreement and conservation work. And I think, like many of the progressives who have put a real question about Brian Deese’s record out there — don’t necessarily think that’s enough — right? — for someone to serve on one of the most important economic bodies in the world, right?

So, BlackRock has very smartly cultivated its reputation as a sort of “good guy” on Wall Street, right? They’re not an investment bank. They just handle the money of retirees. They’re an asset manager. And they have very cannily cultivated this reputation and an enormous amount of unaccountable power. Time after time, they have sought to shirk regulation and — in the last year especially, and while Brian Deese has been there — really greenwashed their image, so put out this sort of idea that BlackRock is taking the climate crisis seriously, all the while continuing to invest in fossil fuels at an enormous rate.

So, you know, I think that it doesn’t necessarily matter so much whether Brian Deese is personally a good person. You know, he may well be, right? I don’t know. I don’t know Brian Deese personally. But I think it deserves looking at both BlackRock’s ambitions, the kind of power they’re trying to amass in government, both here and in the European Union, which maybe we can talk about, and also Brian Deese’s own record, which is not sterling, right?

Like I said, he’s worked more on climate issues for BlackRock now than he ever did for the Obama administration, and was, by all accounts, just a very stalwart defender of business as usual in the Obama administration. We’ve seen nothing really to suggest that he has changed — right? — that he doesn’t support all of the above, what he did in the Obama administration, really going to bat for Arctic drilling, praising the fact that oil production had been expanded under Obama’s tenure. So I think there’s just not enough evidence out there to think that Brian Deese’s own personal character can overcome the sort of danger of putting one of the largest companies in the world in charge of a very, very important economic body in the U.S.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Kate, specifically to that point of one of the largest financial companies in the world, most people are not familiar with BlackRock. They certainly are familiar with Citigroup or Goldman Sachs or Chase. Could you talk a little bit about the extent of BlackRock’s financial prowess around the world? And also if you could comment about the choice of John Kerry as a climate envoy by Joe Biden?

KATE ARONOFF: Sure. So, to talk about BlackRock a little bit, they control $7 trillion worth of assets. And that has grown enormously in the last 10 years. So, prior to the Great Recession, when interest rates were a bit higher, sort of big institutional investors like pension funds would put their money into sort of safe assets, like Treasury bonds, which offer reliable returns, right? And so, as interest rates have gone down as a response to the crisis of the financial crisis, that has become a less attractive option, and so you have these big institutional investors who are seeking reliable returns, right? And so, the products that BlackRock offers, like other asset managers, have become very attractive, and particularly these passive funds which are managed by algorithms and which, notably, are not subject to the sort of sustainability screens that Brian Deese has spent his last four years at BlackRock talking about.

So, these are enormously powerful sort of bodies. Institutional investors, generally — sorry, these big asset managers, generally, have become sort of bigger than anyone would have imagined. And BlackRock, in particular, is a sort of monopoly provider of risk management software, through this thing called Aladdin, to central banks around the world. People might also know that they managed the debt-buying programs that the Fed has run, both in the last financial crisis and in the most recent recession.

And so, they have really tried to just accumulate an enormous amount of power and, by all accounts, are very much striving to be a fourth branch of government, which has included hiring Obama-era alumni to create a sort of positive reputation among Democrats especially, and with the full knowledge that these people might get hired back, which, you know, has borne out in picks for — Biden’s pick for Treasury and for the National Economic Council. So I think there’s just a lot of questions, that I have been sort of concerned to see folks in the climate world coming to Brian Deese’s defense without really thinking about what the problem with putting BlackRock in the National Economic Council means.

And just briefly on this, I mean, we’ve seen this before, right? We’ve seen what putting allies of Wall Street into important economic posts has meant, not just for the country — right? — not just in putting forth a much too small stimulus like Larry Summers pushed for in 2008, when he was head of — incoming head of the National Economic Council, but electorally, right? Democrats lost in a blowout in 2010 and continued to lose every branch of government, because they pursued austerity. They pursued the sort of fiscal discipline that Brian Deese himself preached when he was the deputy and then acting director of the Office of Management and Budget. So, this is a dangerous strategy, just sort of self-evidently, in Democrats’ own self-interest, right?

So, you know, that’s — I’ll talk a little bit about John Kerry now. So, he was appointed to head this new climate envoy on the National Security Council. I think a lot of climate activists can rightly see this as a win, that there is a Cabinet-level post for climate, right? That is nothing to sort of take for granted. It’s a huge step forward in terms of how seriously this administration is at least claiming to take the climate crisis.

But again, I think there’s a lot of questions remaining about whether John Kerry has changed his views since the Obama administration, where he was a very vocal defender of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have opened up the U.S. to challenges from investor-state dispute settlements, that allow corporations to sue governments for things like environmental and climate protections. He has consistently preached that climate change is primarily a national security threat, which I think, combined with the position of his envoy post and the rest of Biden’s foreign policy team, who are, by all accounts, really hawks on foreign policy, I think, you know, sets up maybe seeing this crisis not as a threat to humanity, but as a threat to U.S. military assets — right? — which I think is a sort of dangerous way to view this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you also comment on Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana congressmember, former Congressional Black Caucus chair, that Biden has named to lead the White House Office on Public Engagement? The Sunrise Movement called the move a “betrayal,” adding Richmond has, quote, “taken more donations from the fossil fuel industry during his Congressional career than nearly any other Democrat, cozied up to Big Oil and Gas, and stayed silent and ignored meeting with organizations in his own community while they suffered from toxic pollution and sea-level rise.” If you can talk about BlackRock, as well as the Cedric Richmond appointment and the whole issue of who is making up this Cabinet? What does this say to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, that feels that they threw in their lot wholeheartedly and pushed hard for the Biden-Harris ticket and are wondering what kind of sway they have at this point?

KATE ARONOFF: Yeah, I think, you know, the statement from Sunrise about Cedric Richmond is pretty spot on, I would say. So, he represents a part of the country known as Cancer Alley in Louisiana, which has just been inundated by pollution from chemicals companies and the petrochemicals industry and oil companies, and has routinely just ignored concerns from his constituents about the fact that many, many of their neighbors are coming down with cancer, that they didn’t need to have, because these companies are not being held accountable for polluting these communities.

And so, I think it’s a real — it’s a real thumb of the nose to the folks who worked to elect Joe Biden, right? Young people made a lot of phone calls for Joe Biden. They knocked doors for Joe Biden. Progressives, you know, in places like Ilhan Omar’s district and Rashida Tlaib’s district, really fought to deliver him key states. And with appointments like Brian Deese and like Cedric Richmond, you know, they’re not getting anything for their buck, right? I mean, they really went to bat for a candidate who was not their choice, who was not the person they wanted to see in the White House, and yet knew the stakes of this election, knew that it was important to have a Democrat and get Donald Trump out of office. And they’re just not really — they’re not really seeing any gift from the Biden administration.

I think that’s disappointing, you know, for the fact that we have a giant climate crisis, which I am personally not so confident that Biden’s picks so far will take on at the scale that that crisis desires, but also that — you know, why would you so actively try to turn off what is going to be the biggest part of the Democratic base in the coming years, right? If you look back to the history of the Democratic Party, when was the party winning big majorities? When was it controlling Congress for decades on end? It was after the New Deal, when it delivered for people, when it built new coalitions, when it sought to actually expand its base — certainly not when it tried to target tiny, tiny slivers of suburban white women to win them over with the most sort of poll-tested talking points they could find, right?

I think there’s a lot of — just a big lack of self-reflection from people who have been doing politics the same way for 20 years, at a time when the Democratic Party has really faced a crisis in terms of who its base is, moving forward. And so, I think it’s concerning for all those reasons. And, you know, I would like Democrats to control the Senate, if they don’t win these runoff elections. I would like strong Democratic majorities to push through climate action. And I’m just not sure that that is really the goal that Joe Biden is chasing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hello, Kate. If I can, I just wanted to ask Briahna, in the few seconds we have left — Briahna, can you give us a sense whether you believe that there’s still a role for Bernie Sanders in a Biden administration?

BRIAHNA JOY GRAY: [inaudible] or influence Bernie Sanders —

AMY GOODMAN: Briahna, could you start again?

BRIAHNA JOY GRAY: Yeah. It’s difficult to say that even if there were a role, that Bernie Sanders could have any significant influence, given the overwhelming gestalt of the picks so far and what Joe Biden has very firmly committed to throughout his campaign, which is that nothing will fundamentally change. And it’s not clear to me that Bernie will have more leverage or influence within Biden’s administration than he would as a relative outsider in the Senate.

Moreover, it seems, by the — you know, every indication is that Joe Biden doesn’t have any interest in giving anything over to the left, offering anything to the left. You see olive branches being extended to Republicans, Cindy McCain. You know, we all saw the extent to which Republicans were given a platform at the national convention. And I think that that’s a trend we should expect to continue, that this isn’t an administration that’s particularly interested in offering much to the base of the Democratic Party.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Of course, these conversations will continue. Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders 2020, co-host of Bad Faith podcast and contributing editor to Current Affairs. And thanks to Kate Aronoff, staff writer at The New Republic, co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. We’ll link to your latest piece in The New Republic.

When we come back, The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X. We’ll look at the new National Book Award-winning biography. Stay with us.

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