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The End

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July 29, 2010

The long-awaited economic recovery seems to be coming to a premature end.  For over a year, many pundits have been anticipating a “jobless recovery”.  In other words:  don’t be concerned about the fact that so many people can’t find jobs – the economy will recover anyway.  These hopes have been buoyed by the widespread corporate tactic of cost-cutting (usually by mass layoffs) to gin-up the bottom line in time for earnings reports.  This helps inflate stock prices and produce the illusion that the broader economy is experiencing a sustained recovery.  The “jobless recovery” advocates ignore the extent to which the American economy is consumer-driven.  If those consumers don’t have jobs, they aren’t going to be spending money.

Although many observers seem to take comfort in the assumption that the jobless rate is below ten percent, many are beginning to question the validity of the statistics to that effect provided by the Department of Labor.  AOL’s Daily Finance website provided this commentary on the June, 2010 unemployment survey conducted by Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence:

The June poll turned up 27.8% of households with at least one member who’s unemployed and looking for a job, while the latest poll conducted in the second week of July showed 28.6% in that situation.  That translates to an unemployment rate of over 22%, says Mayur, who has started questioning the accuracy of the Labor Department’s jobless numbers.

*   *   *

In fact, Austan Goolsbee, who is now part of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a 2003 New York Times piece titled “The Unemployment Myth,” that the government had “cooked the books” by not correctly counting all the people it should, thereby keeping the unemployment rate artificially low.  At the time, Goolsbee was a professor at the University of Chicago.  When asked whether Goolsbee still believes the government undercounts unemployment, a White House spokeswoman said Goolsbee wasn’t available to comment.

Such undercounting of unemployment can be an enormously dangerous exercise today.  It could lead  some lawmakers to underestimate the gravity of the labor market’s problems and base their policymaking on a far-less-grim picture than actually exists.  Economically, and socially, that would make a bad situation much worse for America.

“The implications of such undercounting is that policymakers aren’t going to be thinking as big as they should be,” says Ginsburg, also a professor emeritus of economics at Brooklyn College.  “It also means that [consumer] demand is not going to be there, because the income from people who are employed isn’t going to be there.”

Frank Aquila of Sullivan & Cromwell recently wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, discussing the possibility that we could be headed into the second leg of a “double-dip” recession:

The sputtering economy and talk of a possible second recession have certainly rattled an already fragile American consumer.  Consumer confidence is now at its lowest level in a year, and consumer spending tumbled in May and June.  Since consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of  U.S. economic growth, a nervous consumer is not a good omen for a robust recovery.

Job creation is a key factor in increasing consumer confidence.  While economists estimate that we need economic growth of 4 percent or more to stimulate significant job creation, the economy has grown at only about 2 percent to 3 percent, with a slowdown expected in the second half.

*   *   *

With governments struggling under the weight of ballooning budget deficits and businesses waiting for the return of sustained growth, it is the American consumer who will have to lift the global economy out of the mire.  Given the recent news and current consumer sentiment, that appears to be an unlikely prospect in the near term.

The same government that found it necessary to provide corporate welfare to those “too big to fail” financial institutions has now become infested with creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks are now preaching the gospel of “austerity” as an excuse for roadblocking any further efforts to use any form of stimulus to end the economic crisis.  One of the gurus of the deficit chicken hawks is economic historian Niall Ferguson.  Because Ferguson is just an economic historian, a real economist – Brad DeLong — had no trouble exposing the hypocrisy exhibited by the Iraq war cheerleader, while revisiting an article Ferguson had written for The New York Times, back in 2003.  Matthew Yglesias had even more fun compiling and publishing a Ferguson (2003) vs. Ferguson (2010) debate.

At The Daily Beast, Sir Harry Evans emphasized how the sudden emphasis on “austerity” is worse than hypocrisy:

As for the banks, one of the obscenities of our time is that so many in the financial community who owe their survival to the massive taxpayer bailouts, not only rewarded themselves with absurd bonuses, but now have the gall to sport the plumage of deficit hawks.  The unemployed?  Let them eat cake, the day after tomorrow.

Gerald Celente, publisher of The Trends Journal, wrote a great essay for The Daily Reckoning website entitled, “Let Them Eat Losses”.  He pointed out how the kleptocracy violated and destroyed the “very essence of functioning capitalism”.  Worse yet, our government betrayed us by forcing the taxpayers “to finance the failed financiers”:

No individual, business, institution, nation or empire is too-big-to-fail.  Had true capitalism been allowed to function unimpeded, the bloated, over-extended, inefficient and gluttonous firms and industries would have failed.  There would have been hardships and losses but, finally rid of its financial tapeworms, the purged system could be restored to health.

No “ism” or “ology” — regardless of purity of intent or moral foundation — is immune to corruption and abuse.  While capitalism itself is being blamed for the excesses that brought on financial chaos, prior to the most recent gambling binge, in tandem with the blanket dismantling of safeguards and the overt takeover of Washington by Wall Street, capitalism was responsible for creating one of the world’s most successful and universally admired societies.

As I discussed on July 8, because President Obama lacked the political courage to advance an effective economic stimulus package last year, the effects of his “semi-stimulus” have now abated and we are headed into another recession.  Reuters reported on July 27 that Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University and co-developer of Standard and Poor’s S&P/Case-Shiller Index, gave us this unsettling macroeconomic prognostication:

“For me a double-dip is another recession before we’ve healed from this recession … The probability of that kind of double-dip is more than 50 percent,” Shiller said.

“I actually expect it.”

During the last few months of 2009, did you ever think that someday you would be looking back at that time as “the good old days”?




The War On YOU

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July 26, 2010

The fifth annual conclave of the Netroots Nation (a group of liberal bloggers) took place in Las Vegas last week.  Among the stories emerging from that event was the plea that progressive bloggers “quit beating up on Obama”.  I found this very amusing.  After Obama betrayed his supporters by pushing through a faux healthcare “reform” bill, which lacked the promised “public option” and turned out to be a giveaway to big pharma and the health insurance industry – the new President turned the long-overdue, financial “reform” bill into yet another hoax.

As I pointed out on July 12, Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute documented the extent to which Obama’s Treasury Department undermined the financial reform bill at every step.  On the following day, Rich Miller of Bloomberg News examined the results of a Bloomberg National Poll, which measured the public’s reaction to the financial reform bill.  Almost eighty percent of those who responded were of the opinion that the new bill would do little or nothing to prevent or mitigate another financial crisis.  Beyond that, 47 percent shared the view that the bill would do more to protect the financial industry than consumers.  Both healthcare and financial “reform” legislation turned out to be “bait and switch” scams used by the Obama administration against its own supporters.  After that double-double-cross, the liberal blogosphere was being told to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”.

Despite the partisan efforts by Democrats to blame our nation’s economic decline exclusively on the Bush administration, reading between the lines of a recent essay by Senator Bernie Sanders provides some insight on how the problem he discusses has festered during the Obama administration:

The 400 richest families in America, who saw their wealth increase by some $400 billion during the Bush years, have now accumulated $1.27 trillion in wealth.  Four hundred families!  During the last fifteen years, while these enormously rich people became much richer their effective tax rates were slashed almost in half.  While the highest-paid 400 Americans had an average income of $345 million in 2007, as a result of Bush tax policy they now pay an effective tax rate of 16.6 percent, the lowest on record.

Let me get this straight  .  .  .   Is Senator Sanders telling us that it took the 400 families the entire eight Bush years just to pick up $400 billion and that once Obama came to the White House, those families were able to pick up another $827 billion in less than two years?  In fairness, Senator Sanders made a great argument to reinstate what I call, “the tax on dead millionaires”.  He began by discussing  the harsh reality experienced by mere mortals:

And while the Great Wall Street Recession has devastated the middle class, the truth is that working families have been experiencing a decline for decades.

Nevertheless, to understand how the middle class has been destroyed by those 400 families, their corporate alter egos and the lobbyists they employ, one need not rely on the words of a Senator, who is an “avowed socialist” (a real one – not just someone called a socialist by partisan blowhards).  Consider, for example, a great essay by Phil Davis, avowed capitalist and self-described “serial entrepreneur”.  The title of the piece might sound familiar:  “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”.  Mr. Davis discussed the latest battle in the war against Social Security and the current efforts to raise the retirement age to 70:

So, what is this all about?  It’s about forcing 5M people a year who reach the age 65 to remain in the work-force.  The top 0.01% have already taken your money, they have already put you in debt, they have already bankrupted the government as well so it has no choice but to do their bidding.  Now the top 0.01% want to make even MORE profits by paying American workers even LESS money.  If they raise the retirement age to 70 to “balance” Social Security – that will guarantee that another 25M people remain in the workforce (less the ones that drop dead on the job – saving the bother of paying them severance).

Those who believe that President Obama would never let this happen need look no further than a recent posting by Glenn Greenwald (a liberal Constitutional lawyer – just like our President) at Salon.com:

It is absolutely beyond the Republicans’ power to cut Social Security, even if they retake the House and Senate in November, since Obama will continue to wield veto power.  The real impetus for Social Security cuts is from the “Deficit Commission” which Obama created in January by Executive Order, then stacked with people (including its bipartisan co-Chairs) who have long favored slashing the program, and whose recommendations now enjoy the right of an up-or-down vote in Congress after the November election, thanks to the recent maneuvering by Nancy Pelosi.  The desire to cut Social Security is fully bipartisan (otherwise it couldn’t happen) and pushed by the billionaire class that controls the Government.

Despite the efforts to characterize Social Security as an “entitlement program” – it’s not.  It’s something you have already paid for – as documented by your income tax returns and W-2 forms.  Pay close attention and watch how our one-party system, controlled by the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party  steals that money away from you.  Both Phil Davis and Glenn Greenwald have each just given you a big “heads-up”.  What are you going to do about it?




BP Buys Silence Of Expert Witnesses

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July 22, 2010

You might be familiar with the manner in which British Petroleum has been silencing potential witnesses to the extent of damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  A typical example was recently discussed by Anne Macquarie of the Nevada Appeal:

I have a friend who has been working for the last month for a private contractor, doing wildlife inventories in areas affected by the oil spill.  I asked her if I could talk to her about what she saw down there and share it with Nevada Appeal readers.

She told me she’d been required to sign a confidentiality agreement.  She couldn’t talk to anyone about anything she did there.  I didn’t push her — times are tough and I sure didn’t want her to lose her job.

Anticipating criminal prosecution and a nearly infinite number of civil lawsuits, BP has begun a campaign of signing-up as many potential expert witnesses as can be found, not only to testify on BP’s behalf in the numerous proceedings – but, more importantly – to buy their silence.  Litigation attorneys often refer to this tactic as, “buying experts off the street”.   Precious little attention has been focused on this activity.  Dylan Ratigan has exposed it and CBS News briefly touched the subject.  Other than those instances, the mainstream media have not discussed this ploy – at least as of this writing.   Here’s some of what CBS had to say:

BP has been trying to hire marine scientists from universities around the Gulf Coast in an apparent move to bolster the company’s legal defense against anticipated lawsuits related to the Gulf oil spill, according to a report from The Press-Register in Mobile, Ala.

Scientists from Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University and Texas A&M have reportedly accepted BP’s offer, according to the paper.

The federal government is expected to file a massive Natural Resources Damage Assessment lawsuit against BP, and it’ll have to draw on large amounts of scientific research to build its case.

*   *   *

Robert Wiygul, an Ocean Springs lawyer who specializes in environmental law, said BP is in effect denying the government access to valuable information by hiring the scientists and adding them to its legal team.  “It also buys silence,” Wiygul told the Press-Register, “thanks to confidentiality clauses in the contracts.”

Scientists who sign the contract to work for BP will be subject to a strict confidentiality agreement.  They will be barred from publishing, sharing or even speaking about data they collected for at least three years.

George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, who was approached by BP, told the paper:  “It makes me feel like they were more interested in making sure we couldn’t testify against them than in having us testify for them.”

The original story for the Alabama Press Register was written by Ben Raines.  His article included this interesting aspect of his investigative work on the piece:

BP officials declined to answer the newspaper’s questions about the matter.  Among the questions:  how many scientists and universities have been approached, how many are under contract, how much will they be paid, and why the company imposed confidentiality restrictions on scientific data gathered on its behalf.

Coincidentally, CBS also provided us with the perspective of musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson on this subject.  She appeared on David Letterman’s Late Show on July 14 to perform a song entitled, “Only An Expert”.

On July 21, Bloomberg News televised an interview with Matthew Simmons, founder of the Ocean Energy Institute.  Among the subjects included in the conversation was the topic of BP’s confidentiality agreements.  If what Mr. Simmons said is correct, BP’s legal defense efforts will become futile once the public realizes “we have now killed the Gulf of Mexico”.  At least on that one point, the cretins at BP are probably not the only individuals who are hoping that Mr. Simmons is wrong.




Ignoring David Stockman

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July 19, 2010

With mid-term elections approaching, politicians are fearful of making any decisions or statements that may offend their wealthy contributors.  Accordingly, the prospect of allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire has become a source of outrage among Republicans.  In fact, many Democrats are afraid to touch this subject as their number of wealthy benefactors continues to shrink.

On July 11, Chris Wallace posed this question to Arizona Senator John Kyl on Fox News Sunday:

Senator, let me just break in, because I want to pick up on exactly the point that you just brought up, particularly, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  That is part of the big Republican growth agenda, let’s keep, not let expire, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

The fact is those would cost $678 billion over 10 years.  At a time Republicans are saying that they can’t extend unemployment benefits unless you pay for them, tell me, how are you going to pay that $678 billion to keep those Bush tax cuts for the wealthy?

Kyl responded with:  “Chris, that is a loaded question.”  Kyl continued to dodge the question, despite persistent follow-up from Wallace.  The Senator eventually escaped with this curious response:  “. . . you should never raise taxes in order to cut taxes.”  The apparent logic behind this statement was that you should never raise taxes on the wealthy in order to cut taxes for the middle class.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stepped up to reassure his party’s wealthy contributors that there would be a fight to keep those tax cuts in place – even if some of their old heroes thought the cuts were a bad idea.  Daniel Enoch of Bloomberg Businessweek put it this way:

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell spoke out against former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s call to let tax cuts that were passed during the administration of President George W. Bush expire.

One would expect that since Ronald Reagan has become a patron saint of the Republican Party, the opinions of Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman, might influence current opinion within the GOP.  Nevertheless, in a recent interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast, Stockman stepped on what has become a “third rail” for Republicans:

Stockman, a nominal tax-cutting supply-sider when he worked for Reagan, has been crusading in recent weeks for President Obama to let George W. Bush’s tax cuts expire — something that will happen automatically absent congressional intervention.

“The only thing Obama needs to do is say, ‘Gentlemen and Ladies of the Congress, don’t send me a tax bill because I don’t want one,’ ” Stockman tells me.  “He can take the political hit.  That’s his job.  That’s change you can believe in.  That would put $300 billion back into the coffers, beginning in 2011 and 2012, and it would erase one of the biggest policy blunders in history.  The Bush tax cuts never should’ve been passed because, one, we couldn’t afford them, and second, we didn’t earn them…  The lower half of American families don’t pay income tax, and they’re the people who ought to be given a break here.  By allowing these tax cuts to expire, you’re putting the burden on the top half of the income earners.  What is more fair than that?  So why does Obama want to extend, as apparently the White House has been saying, the tax cuts for $150,000-a-year families?  So the wife can buy her 19th Coach bag?”

Of course, we all know the answer to that question.   It’s because Obama is every bit as motivated as his adversaries to tailor his own policies toward generating campaign contributions.




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Face It

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July 15, 2010

Despite Washington’s festival of self-congratulation, now that the so-called financial “reform” bill is finally becoming law, the public is not being fooled.  Rich Miller of Bloomberg News reported that almost eighty percent of the public accepts the premise I discussed on June 28 — that the financial “reform” bill is a hoax.  Mr. Miller examined the results of a Bloomberg National Poll, which measured the public’s reaction to the financial reform bill and here’s what was revealed:

Almost four out of five Americans surveyed in a Bloomberg National Poll this month say they have just a little or no confidence that the measure being championed by congressional Democrats will prevent or significantly soften a future crisis.  More than three-quarters say they don’t have much or any confidence the proposal will make their savings and financial assets more secure.

A plurality — 47 percent — says the bill will do more to protect the financial industry than consumers; 38 percent say consumers would benefit more.

*   *   *

Skepticism about the financial bill, which may be approved this week, cuts across political party lines.  Seven in 10 Democrats have little or no confidence the proposals will avert or significantly lessen the impact of another financial catastrophe; 68 percent doubt it will make their savings more secure.

The Bloomberg poll also revealed that approximately 60 percent of the respondents felt that the $700 billion TARP bailout was a waste of money.  This sentiment was bolstered by a recent report from the Congressional Oversight Panel, disclosing that TARP did nothing for the 690 smaller banks, with assets of less than $100 billion each, which received TARP money.  Ronald Orol of MarketWatch provided this summary:

The report said “there is little evidence” that the capital injections led small banks to increase lending.

It also said small-bank TARP recipients have a disproportionately larger exposure to commercial real-estate losses than their big bank counterparts.  They are also having a difficult time making dividend payments to the government, a requirement of TARP, and this problem will increase over time, the report said.

The bottom line in reports such as these is usually a variation on the theme presented by pollster J. Ann Selzer, president of the firm that conducted the Bloomberg poll on public response to the financial reform bill:

“The mood of the American public is highly skeptical toward government and its ability to do right by the average person      . . .”

With the public mood at such a skeptical level about government, now is a good time to face up to the reason why our government has become so dysfunctional:  It is systemically corrupt.  Legalized graft has become the predominant force behind nearly all political decision-making.  If a politician has concerns that a particular compromise could upset his or her constituents, there will always be a helpful lobbyist to buy enough advertising propaganda (in the form of campaign ads) to convince the sheeple that the pol is acting in the public’s best interests.

Eric Alterman recently wrote a great (albeit turgid) article for The Nation, discussing institutionalized sleaziness in Washington.  Despite Alterman’s liberal bias, the systemic corruption he discusses should outrage conservative and independent voters as well as liberals.  Here are some of Alterman’s important points about ugly realities that the public has been reluctant to face:

Of course when attempting to determine why the people’s will is so frequently frustrated in our system, any author would be remiss if he did not turn first and foremost to the power of money.  The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics calculated that approximately $3.47 billion was spent lobbying the federal government in 2009, up from $3.3 billion the previous year.  By the final quarter of the year, lobbies were handing out $20 million a day.  The most generous spreaders of wealth were in the pharmaceutical and health products industries, whose $266.8 million set a record for “the greatest amount ever spent on lobbying efforts by a single industry for one year” according to CRP.  At one point, PhRMA employed forty-eight lobbying firms, in addition to in-house lobbyists, with a total of 165 people overall, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s Paul Blumenthal.

Max Baucus (D, Montana), who wrote the original Senate healthcare bill, raised roughly $2 million from the health sector in the past five years, according to opensecrets.org, despite running in a low-cost media market with marginal opposition.

*   *   *

Financial power need not be justified merely on the basis of the votes it sways.  Rather, it can define potential alternatives, invent arguments, inundate with propaganda and threaten with merely hypothetical opposition.  Politicians do not need to “switch” their votes to meet the demands of this money.  They can bury bills; they can rewrite the language of bills that are presented; they can convince certain Congressmen to be absent on the days certain legislation is discussed; they can confuse debate; they can bankroll primary opposition.  The manner and means through which money can operate is almost as infinite as its uses in any bordello, casino or Wall Street brokerage.

The banal, pretexted debates, focused on liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right, etc. are simply smokescreens for the real problem:  the disastrous consequences that governmental  influence peddling has on society.  Political corruption is bipartisan and in Washington it is almost universal.   Campaign finance reform is just one battle to be fought in the war against institutionalized government corruption.  It’s time for all of the Jack Abramoffs and their elected cronies to be rounded-up and tossed into the slammer.  The public needs to face this ugly reality and demand that laws be enforced, loopholes be closed and bribery be stopped.  We are just beginning to taste the consequences of ignoring these problems.  Failure to take control of this situation now runs a serious risk of unimaginable repercussions.




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Wading In Quicksand

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July 12, 2010

The recent Gallup Poll, revealing that President Obama’s approval rating has dropped to 38% among independent voters, has resulted in an outpouring of (unsolicited) advice offered to the President by numerous commentators.  As I pointed out in my last posting, Matt Miller’s July 8 Washington Post article set out a really great plan, which he described as “a radically centrist ‘Jobs Now, Deficits Soon’ package”.   Nevertheless, Mr. Miller’s piece was not written as advice to the President, as some of the more recent articles have been.  I recently read one of those “advice to Obama” pieces that the President would do well to ignore.  It was written by a former Bill Clinton pollster named Douglas Schoen for the New York Daily News Schoen’s plan focused on this premise:

The independent swing voters who hold the fate of the Democratic Party in their hands are looking for candidates and parties that champion fiscal discipline, limited government, deficit reduction and a free market, pro-growth agenda.

Not true.  The independent swing voters are disappointed with Obama because the candidate’s promise of “hope and change” turned out to be a “bait and switch” scam to sell the public more cronyism.  At this point, it appears as though the entire Democratic Party will suffer the consequences in the 2010 elections.

The shortcomings of the Obama administration were more accurately summed up by Robert Kuttner for The Huffington Post:

But even a dire economic crisis and a Republican blockade of needed remedies have not fundamentally altered the temperament, trajectory, or tactical instincts of this surprisingly aloof  president.  He has not been willing or able to use his office to move public opinion in a direction that favors more activism.  Nor has Obama, for the most part, seized partisan and ideological opportunities that hapless Republicans and clueless corporate executives keep lobbing him like so many high, hanging curve balls.

*   *   *

But despite our hopes, Barack Obama is unlikely to offer bolder policies or give tougher speeches any time soon, even as threats of a double-dip recession and an electoral blowout in November loom.  This is just not who he is.  If the worst economic crisis in eight decades were going to change his assumptions about how to govern and how to lead, it would have done so by now.

*   *   *

I have also watched Obama’s loyal opposition –people like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Warren, Sheila Bair — be proven right by events, again and again.  So there are alternative paths, as there always are.  But the White House has disdained them.

And I’ve noticed that it is the populists among Democratic elected officials who are best defended against defeat in November.  That tells you something, too.  Why should the project of rallying the common people against elites in Washington, on Wall Street, and in the media, be ceded to the far right?  But that is what this White House is doing.

E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post demonstrated a good understanding of why independent voters have become fed up with Obama and how this has ballooned into a larger issue of anti-Democrat sentiment:

On the one hand, independent voters are turning on them.  Democratic House candidates enjoyed a 51 percent to 43 percent advantage over Republicans in 2008.  This time, the polls show independents tilting Republican by substantial margins.

But Democrats are also suffering from a lack of enthusiasm among their own supporters.  Poll after poll has shown that while Republicans are eager to cast ballots, many Democrats seem inclined to sit out this election.

The apathy of the rank-and-file Democrats and the alienation of the independents is best explained by the Administration’s faux-reform agenda.  The so-called healthcare “reform” bill turned out to be a giveaway to big pharma and the health insurance industry.  Worse yet, the financial “reform” bill not only turned out to be a hoax – it did nothing to address systemic risk.  In other words, if one of those five “untouchable” Wall Street banks fails, it will take the entire financial system down with it — in the absence of another huge, trillion-dollar bailout from the taxpayers.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute documented the extent to which Obama’s Treasury Department undermined the financial reform bill at every step:

Examples?  Off the top of my head, ones with a paper trail:  They fought the Collins amendment for quality of bank capital, fought leverage requirements like a 15-to-1 cap, fought prefunding the resolution mechanism, fought Section 716removed foreign exchange swaps and introduced end user exemption from derivative language between the Obama white paper and the House Bill, believed they could have gotten the SAFE Banking Amendment to break up the banks but didn’t try, pushed against the full Audit the Fed and encouraged the Scott Brown deal. spinning out swap desks,

You can agree or disagree with any number of those items, think they are brilliant or dumb, reasonable or a pipe dream.  But what is worth noting is that they always end up leaving their fingerprints on the side of less structural reform and in favor of the status quo on Wall Street.

The Obama administration is apparently operating from the mistaken perspective that the voters are too stupid to see through their antics.  Sending Joe Biden to appear on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show to dissuade the public from considering the motives of politicians will not solve the administration’s problem of sinking approval ratings.




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Failed Leadership

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July 8, 2010

Exactly one year ago (on July 7, 2009) I pointed out that it would eventually become necessary for President Obama to propose a second economic stimulus package because he didn’t get it right the first time.  As far back as January of 2009, the President was ignoring all of the warnings from economists such as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who forewarned that the proposed $850 billion economic recovery package would be inadequate.  Mr. Obama also ignored the Bloomberg News report of February 12, 2009 concerning its survey of 50 economists, which described Obama’s stimulus plan as “insufficient”.  Last year, the public and the Congress had the will – not to mention the sense of urgency – to approve a robust stimulus initiative.  As we now approach mid-term elections, the politicians whom Barry Ritholtz describes as “deficit chicken hawks” – elected officials with a newfound concern about budget deficits – are resisting any further stimulus efforts.  Worse yet, as Ryan Grim reported for the Huffington Post, President Obama is now ignoring his economic advisors and listening, instead, to his political advisors, who are urging him to avoid any further economic rescue initiatives.

Ryan Grim’s article revealed that there has been a misunderstanding of the polling data that has kept politicians running scared on the debt issue.  A recent poll revealed that responses to polling questions concerning sovereign debt are frequently interpreted by the respondents as limited to the issue of China’s increasing role as our primary creditor:

The Democrats gathered on Thursday morning to dig into the national poll, which was paid for by the Alliance for American Manufacturing and done by Democrat Mark Mellman and Republican Whit Ayers.

It hints at an answer to why people are so passionate when asked by pollsters about the deficit:  It’s about jobs, China and American decline.  If the job situation improves, worries about the deficit will dissipate.  Asking whether Congress should address the deficit or the jobless crisis, therefore, is the wrong question.

*   *   *

About 45 percent of respondents said the biggest problem is that “we are too deep in debt to China,” the highest-ranking concern, while 58 percent said the U.S. is no longer the strongest economy, with China being the overwhelming alternative identified by people.

As I pointed out on May 27, even Larry Summers gets it now – providing the following advice that Obama is ignoring because our President is motivated more by fear than by a will to lead:

In areas where the government has a significant opportunity for impact, it would be pennywise and pound foolish not to take advantage of our capacity to encourage near-term job creation.

*   *   *

Consider the package currently under consideration in Congress to extend unemployment and health benefits to those out of work and support to states to avoid budget cuts as a case in point.

It would be an act of fiscal shortsightedness to break from the longstanding practice of extending these provisions at a moment when sustained economic recovery is so crucial to our medium-term fiscal prospects.

Since our President prefers to be a follower rather than a leader, I suggest that he follow the sound advice of The Washington Post’s Matt Miller:

I come before you, in other words, a deficit hawk to the core.  But it is the height of economic folly — and socially dangerous, in my view — to elevate deficit reduction as a goal today over boosting jobs and growth.  Especially when there are ways to goose the economy while at the same time legislating changes that move us toward fiscal sanity once we’re past this stagnation.

Mr. Miller presented a fantastic plan, which he described as “a radically centrist ‘Jobs Now, Deficits Soon’ package”.  He concluded the piece with this painfully realistic assessment:

The fact that nothing like this will happen, therefore, is both depressing and instructive.  Republicans are content to glide toward November slamming Democrats without offering answers of their own.  Democrats who now know the first stimulus was too puny feel they’ll be clobbered for trying more in the Tea Party era.

The leadership void brought to us by the Obama Presidency was the subject of yet another great essay by Paul Farrell of MarketWatch.  He supported his premise — that President Obama has capitulated to Wall Street’s “Conspiracy of Weasels” — with the perspectives of twelve different commentators.

The damage has already been done.  Any hope that our President will experience a sudden conversion to authentic populism is pure fantasy.  There will be no more federal efforts to resuscitate the job market, to facilitate the availability of credit to small businesses or to extend benefits to the unemployed.  The federal government’s only concern is to preserve the well-being of those five sacred Wall Street banks because if any single one failed – such an event would threaten our entire financial system.  Nothing else matters.




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NOAA Uses Human Canaries To Test Gulf Fish

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July 5, 2010

I recently checked in on the website for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  (NOAA) for the latest update on the Deepwater Horizon oil plume.  The site features a map depicting the “fishery closure area” – a rather huge section of the Gulf of Mexico consisting of over 81,000 square miles — where fishing is prohibited.  I immediately began to wonder whether some of the toxic fish from the fishery closure area might swim outside of their boundary and find their way onto someone’s plate.  Apparently, the folks at NOAA thought of that themselves, so they developed a testing protocol to ascertain whether Gulf fish intended for human consumption might have been contaminated with petrochemicals and/or Corexit – the creepy dispersant that has been banned in Britain, although it has been used extensively in response to the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.  Corexit 9500, when ingested, has been known to rupture red blood cells and cause internal bleeding.  Here is the Material Safety Data Sheet for Corexit 9500, where you can find this useful tidbit:

HUMAN HAZARD CHARACTERIZATION :  Based on our hazard characterization, the potential human hazard is:  Moderate

What do you think NOAA’s Gulf fish testing protocol involves?  Gas chromatography?  Scanning electron microscopy?  Guess again.  They’re having people sniff the fish to determine whether it has been tainted.  No kidding.  Check it out:

NOAA’s expert seafood assessors are training state personnel to use their sense of smell and taste to detect any unusual odors and flavors in Gulf Coast fish — aromas that could indicate contamination by oil or dispersants from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill.

*   *   *

Using your sense of smell is one of the best methods for determining the safety and acceptability of seafood  — sensory analysis is a commonly used tool in seafood safety and quality inspections.  An essential element of the job of a NOAA seafood inspector is to determine what qualifies as Grade A fish, which means that seafood must have good flavor and odor.

*   *   *

People are trained by exposing them to various kinds and concentrations of odors and flavors.  This process takes time.  Some people, unfortunately, are not trainable — some just don’t have an adequate sense of smell to do this work.  However, most people have a sense that can be trained to detect specific odors and refined for enhanced sensitivity.

*   *   *

The Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill is on a scale we’ve never seen before, and we can use all the extra hands — and nostrils — we can get.  We are expecting to process tens of thousands of samples in the coming months.

What are sensory testers “sniffing” for?

Sensory testers smell for the distinct scent of oil or chemicals that might differ from the normal odor of fish and shellfish ready for market.  When we get a whiff of oil in a seafood sample, we know that the product is unfit for both human consumption and for commercial sale.

In “harmonization” class, we spike fish samples with set concentrations  of oil specific to the Deepwater Horizon/BP spill, as well as dispersants, to determine how sensitive our testers and trainees are.

Learning to discern an odor or flavor and properly describing it is something that comes from experience.  Some odors or flavors are easily masked by a competing odor or flavor so the training and evaluations need to take place in a controlled setting such as a laboratory.  We train people to not only fine-tune their sense of smell to the oil and dispersants from this particular spill, but also to be able to repeat their sensory abilities and standardize how they describe what they are smelling.

*   *  *

For fish like snapper and grouper, we collect a minimum of six, one-pound samples.  First, the fish are filleted.  Then, a panel of 10 expert assessors will smell each of the raw samples and record the odor.  The samples are then cooked, and the process is repeated so that the experts may smell and taste the fish in its cooked state.

Cooking the product is important for two reasons:  First, it releases aromas that may be less detectable in a raw state.  Second, some of the testers may be more sensitive to the smell of cooked fish versus raw fish.  Either way, smelling both raw and cooked samples assures that our testers can detect the full aromatic possibilities of the fish.

This “sniff testing” struck me as a really stupid idea.  It doesn’t sound reliable at all.  It is based on the presumption that hazardous levels of numerous chemicals — often in combination –  can be detected by the human olfactory sense.  Has NOAA considered that these fish sniffers might be getting exposed to hazardous chemicals at levels in excess of the Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) for these substances?   How many parts per million of the various petrochemicals are the testers ingesting when they sniff this fish on a continuous basis?  Worse yet:  How much do they ingest when they eat the fish?   I would love to hear the opinion from an independent, objective panel of occupational hygienists about this testing protocol.

NOAA’s fish-sniffing project appears to be just another example of how a stupid mistake  (allowing the  Deepwater Horizon to operate in the first place) sets off a chain reaction of even more stupid mistakes.  Let’s hope the people involved with this testing don’t suffer any unhealthful consequences from this activity.  Aside from the risk of adverse physical effects, there is also a good chance that these people signed a release –  exculpating “the usual suspects” from any and all liability arising from injuries sustained while conducting these tests.  No good deed shall go unpunished.




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Rare Glimpses Of Honesty And Sanity

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July 1, 2010

Too many of the commentaries we see these days are either motivated by or calculated to promote hysteria.  When someone expresses a rational point of view or an honest look at the skullduggery going on in Washington, it’s as refreshing as a cold beer on a hot, summer day.

With so much panic over sovereign debt and budget deficits afflicting the consensual mood,  it’s always great to read a piece by someone willing to analyze the situation from a perspective based on facts instead of fear.  Brett Arends wrote a great piece for MarketWatch, dissecting the debt panic and looking at the data to be considered by those implementing public policy on this issue.  His essay focused on “the three biggest lies about the economy”:  that unemployment is below ten percent, that the markets are panicking about the deficit and that the United States is sliding into socialism.  Here is some of what he had to say:

Most people have no idea what’s really going on in the economy.   They’re living on spin, myths and downright lies.  And if we don’t know the facts, how can we make intelligent decisions?

High unemployment exerts a huge deflationary force on the economy.  Beyond that, the income taxes those unemployed citizens used to pay are no longer helping to pick up the tab for our bloated budget.   Mr. Arends emphasized the importance of looking at the real unemployment rate – what is referred to as U6 – which includes those people deliberately disregarded when counting the “unemployed”:

For example it counts discouraged job seekers, and those forced to work part-time because they can’t get a full-time job.

That rate right now is 16.6%, just below its recent high and twice the level it was a few years ago.

*   *   *

Consider, for example, the situation among men of prime working age.  An analysis of data at the U.S. Labor Department shows that there are 79 million men in America between the ages of 25 and 65.  And nearly 18 million of them, or 22%, are out of work completely.  (The rate in the 1950s was less than 10%.)  And that doesn’t even count those who are working part-time because they can’t get full-time work.  Add those to the mix and about one in four men of prime working age lacks a full-time job.

In exploding the myth about claimed market panic concerning the debt, Arends dug back into his arsenal of common sense, explaining what would happen if the markets were panicked:

. . .  the interest rate on government bonds would be skyrocketing.  That’s what happens with risky debt:  Lenders demand higher and higher interest payments to compensate them for the dangers.

But the rates on U.S. bonds have been plummeting recently.  The yield on the 30-year Treasury bond is down to just 4%.  By historic standards that’s chickenfeed.  Panicked?  The bond markets are practically snoring.

The specious claims about domestic socialism don’t really deserve a response, but here is how Arends dealt with that narrative:

Meanwhile, federal spending, about 25% of the economy this year, is expected to fall to about 23% by 2013.  In 1983, under Ronald Reagan, it hit 23.5%.  In the early 1990s it was around 22%.  Some socialism.

Another prevalent false narrative being circulated lately (particularly by President Obama and his administration) concerns the hoax known as the “financial reform” bill.  Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold gave us a rare, disgusted insider’s look at how Wall Street was able to get what it wanted from its lackeys on Capitol Hill:

Since the Senate bill passed, I have had a number of conversations with key members of the administration, Senate leadership and the conference committee that drafted the final bill.  Unfortunately, not once has anyone suggested in those conversations the possibility of strengthening the bill to address my concerns and win my support.  People want my vote, but they want it for a bill that, while including some positive provisions, has Wall Street’s fingerprints all over it.

In fact, reports indicate that the administration and conference leaders have gone to significant lengths to avoid making the bill stronger.

Lest we forget that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused by the antics of cretins such as “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, Senator Feingold’s essay mentioned that sleazy chapter in Senate history to put this latest disgrace in the proper perspective:

Many of the critical actors who shaped this bill were present at the creation of the financial crisis.  They supported the enactment of Gramm-Leach-Bliley, deregulating derivatives, even the massive Interstate Banking bill that helped grease the “too big to fail” skids.  It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the final version of the bill looks the way it does, or that I won’t fall in line with their version of  “reform.”

As I discussed in “Your Sleazy Government at Work”, the voters will not forget about the Democrats (including President Obama) who undermined financial reform legislation, while pretending to advance it.  The Democratic Party has until early 2012 to face up to the fact that their organization would be better off supporting a Presidential candidate with the integrity of Russ Feingold or Maria Cantwell if they expect to maintain control over the Executive branch of our government.




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