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Obama Fatigue

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Since President Obama first assumed office, it hasn’t been too difficult to find harsh criticism of the new administration.  One need only tune in to the Fox News, where an awkward Presidential sneeze could be interpreted as a “secret message” to Bill Ayers or George Soros.  Nevertheless, with the passing of time, voices from across the political spectrum have joined a chorus of frustration with the Obama agenda.

On February 26, 2009 – only one month into the Obama Presidency – I voiced my suspicion about the new administration’s unwillingness to address the problem of systemic risk, inherent in allowing a privileged few banks to enjoy their “too big to fail” status:

Will Turbo Tim’s “stress tests” simply turn out to be a stamp of approval, helping insolvent banks avoid any responsible degree of reorganization, allowing them to continue their “welfare queen” existence, thus requiring continuous infusions of cash at the expense of the taxpayers?  Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” –  by avoiding bank nationalization — send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

By September of 2009, I became convinced that Mr. Obama was suffering from a degree of hubris, which could seal his fate as a single-term President:

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history – not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.

Although the TARP bank bailout program was initiated during the final months of the Bush Presidency, the Obama administration’s stewardship of that program recently drew sharp criticism from Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP).  Beyond that, in his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Mr. Barofsky criticized the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”:

Finally, the country was assured that regulatory reform would address the threat to our financial system posed by large banks that have become effectively guaranteed by the government no matter how reckless their behavior.  This promise also appears likely to go unfulfilled.  The biggest banks are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis and control a larger part of our economy than ever.  They reasonably assume that the government will rescue them again, if necessary.

*   *   *

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

*   *   *

In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP – which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers – into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals – whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in – may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

Another unlikely critic of President Obama is the retired law school professor who blogs using the pseudonym, “George Washington”.  A recent posting at Washington’s Blog draws from a number of sources to ponder the question of whether President Obama (despite his Nobel Peace Prize) has become more brutal than President Bush.  The essay concludes with a review of Obama’s overall performance in The White House:

Whether or not Obama is worse than Bush, he’s just as bad.

While we had Bush’s “heck of a job” response to Katrina, we had Obama’s equally inept response and false assurances in connection with the Gulf oil spill, and Obama’s false assurances in connection with the Japanese nuclear crisis.

And Bush and Obama’s response to the financial crisis are virtually identical:  bail out the giant banks, let Wall Street do whatever it wants, and forget the little guy.

The American voters asked for change.  Instead, we got a different branch of the exact same Wall Street/military-industrial complex/Big Energy (BP, GE)/Big Pharma party.

Another commentator who has become increasingly critical of President Obama is Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration.  Mr. Obama’s failure to push back against the corporatist politicians, who serve as “reverse Robin Hoods” enriching CEOs at the expense of American workers, resulted in this rebuke from Professor Reich:

President Obama and Democratic leaders should be standing up for the wages and benefits of ordinary Americans, standing up for unions, and decrying the lie that wage and benefit concessions are necessary to create jobs.  The President should be traveling to the Midwest – taking aim at Republican governors in the heartland who are hell bent on destroying the purchasing power of American workers.  But he’s doing nothing of the sort.

As attention begins to focus on the question of who will be the Republican nominee for the 2012 Presidential election campaign, Obama Fatigue is causing many people to appraise the President’s chances of defeat.  The excitement of bringing the promised “change” of 2008 has morphed into cynicism.  Many of the voters who elected Obama in 2008 might be too disgusted to bother with voting in 2012.  As a result, the idea of a Democratic or Independent challenger to Obama is receiving more consideration.  Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi recently provided this response to a letter inquiring about the possibility that Elizabeth Warren could make a run for the White House in 2012:

A few months ago I heard a vague rumor from someone who theoretically would know that such a thing was being contemplated, but I don’t know anything beyond that.  I wish she would run.  I’m not sure if it would ultimately be a good thing or a bad thing for Barack Obama – she could fatally wound his general-election chances by exposing his ties to Wall Street – but I think she’s exactly what this country needs. She’s totally literate on the finance issues and is completely on the side of human beings, as opposed to banks and oil companies and the like.  One thing I will say:  if she did run, she would have a lot more support from the press than she probably imagines, as there are a lot of reporters out there who are reaching the terminal-disappointment level with Obama ready to hop on the bandwagon of someone like Warren.

If Elizabeth Warren ultimately decides to make a run for The White House, Mr. Obama should do the right thing:  Stop selling the sky to people and step aside.


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Abundance Of Goofiness

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The world is beset by a plague of goofiness.  I thought it was limited to the United States until recent events demonstrated that goofiness has become a worldwide phenomenon.  Premature European austerity programs, commenced before unemployment subsided, have led to higher deficits, elevated bond yields and more recession.  Although sober-minded economists warned against implementation of austerity measures until justified by economic circumstances, there was this itch that politicians had to scratch.  Now they have a nice infection.

In America, everyone had some good laughs of this video clip of President Obama’s discovery that he was locked out of the White House upon his return from Brazil.  Although it was widely reported that the White House staff was “caught off guard” by the First Family’s early return from their Brazilian vacation, I don’t believe it.  Such things don’t happen by accident.  My suspicion is that Chief of Staff, Bill Daley and his real boss, The Dimon Dog, deliberately locked Obama out of the White House as an admonition against cracking down on the megabanks, increasing taxes on the rich and empowering Elizabeth Warren.

Our President has been busy puzzling over the situation in Libya, where he (with authorization from the United Nations) has joined in on the “kinda-sorta” invasion.  Few people have dared to suggest that interloping in the Libyan civil war is sheer goofiness.  Many Republicans, such as Newt Gingrich, were in favor of intervention until Obama made the decision to launch air strikes.  Gingrich and his contrarian cohorts suddenly found it necessary to do a 180 on the issue.  Meanwhile, the smart conservative, George Will, was asking all the right questions.  I’ll reprint just a few of them here – but be sure to read his complete list.  These questions are among those that remain unanswered:

  • The world would be better without Gaddafi. But is that a vital U.S. national interest? If it is, when did it become so? A month ago, no one thought it was.

*   *   *

  • Presumably we would coordinate aid with the leaders of the anti-Gaddafi forces. Who are they?
  • Libya is a tribal society.  What concerning our Iraq and Afghanistan experiences justifies confidence that we understand Libyan dynamics?

More recently, George Will wrote an essay raising the question, “Is it America’s duty to intervene wherever regime change is needed?”  Consider this point:

.  .  .  America has intervened in a civil war in a tribal society, the dynamics of which America does not understand. And America is supporting one faction, the nature of which it does not know.  “We are standing with the people of Libya,” says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, evidently confident that “the” people are a harmonious unit.  Many in the media call Moammar Gaddafi’s opponents “freedom fighters,” and perhaps they are, but no one calling them that really knows how the insurgents regard one another, or understand freedom, or if freedom, however understood, is their priority.

While many commentators have been busy condemning Bradley Manning as a “terrorist” and the worst American traitor since John Anthony Walker, few of those hypocrites would admit that the “people power” revolutions now taking place throughout the Middle East have resulted from the publication of Manning’s purloined files by WikiLeaks.  Beyond that, few – if any – of those self-righteous journalists have hesitated to quote from those leaked documents in their own essays.  A look at one of those leaked cables (dated February 15, 2008 and originating from the American Embassy in Tripoli) gives us a better understanding of who some of those Libyan “freedom fighters” really are:

xxxxxxxxxxxx partly attributed the fierce mindset in Benghazi and Derna to the message preached by imams in eastern Libyan mosques, which he said is markedly more radical than that heard in other parts of the country. xxxxxxxxxxxx makes a point of frequenting mosques whenever he visits Libya as a means to connect with neighbors and relatives and take the political pulse.  Sermons in eastern mosques, particularly the Friday ‘khutba’, are laced with “coded phrases” urging worshippers to support jihad in Iraq and elsewhere through direct participation or financial contributions.  The language is often ambiguous enough to be plausibly denied, he said, but for devout Muslims it is clear, incendiary and unambiguously supportive of jihad.  Direct and indirect references to “martyrdom operations” were not uncommon.  By contrast with mosques in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country, where references to jihad are extremely rare, in Benghazi and Derna they are fairly frequent subjects.

The foregoing cable was discussed in a recent piece by Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch.  Mr. Cockburn also focused on some information contained in the so-called Sinjar Records, which American forces retrieved from an Al Qaeda stronghold in northern Iraq during 2007:

The West Point study of the Iraqi Sinjar Records calculates that of the 440 foreign al-Qaeda recruits whose hometowns are known, 21 came from Benghazi, thereby making it the fourth most common hometown listed in the records.  Fifty-three of the al-Qaeda recruits came from Darnah, the highest total of any of the hometowns listed in the records.  The second highest number, 51, came from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  Darnah (80,000) has less than 2 per cent the population of Riyadh.  Darnah contributed “far and away the largest per capita number of fighters.”

The Embassy cable from February of 2008 and the Sinjar Records provide some useful information to consider when pondering the questions raised by George Will.  Is Team Obama “up to speed” on any of this?

The aforementioned CounterPunch article by Alexander Cockburn covered another episode of tragic goofiness – the Fukushima power plant disaster.  As I previously discussed here and here, the feeble information flow concerning this crisis has been downright sleazy.  Mr. Cockburn provided a must read critique of how this critical situation has been mishandled and misrepresented by the media:

Amid reasonable suspicions that leading news media might have been in receipt of informal government advisories to stop creating panic, it became much harder to find credible bulletins on what was actually happening.  In fact careful perusal of the daily briefings at the  Vienna hq of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna disclosed absolutely no substantive progress and indeed discreet admissions that “[this was on March 23)  the “Agency still lacks data on water levels and temperatures in the spent fuel pools at Units 1, 2, 3 and 4.”

*   *   *

On our own website, by contrast, several articles and interviews stressed what Hirose Takashi said:

“All of the information media are at fault here I think.  They are saying stupid things like, why, we are exposed to radiation all the time in our daily life, we get radiation from outer space.  But that’s one millisievert per year.  A year has 365 days, a day has 24 hours; multiply 365 by 24, you get 8760.  Multiply the 400 millisieverts by that, you get 3,500,000 the normal dose.  You call that safe?  And what media have reported this?  None.  They compare it to a CT scan, which is over in an instant; that has nothing to do with it.  The reason radioactivity can be measured is that radioactive material is escaping.  What is dangerous is when that material enters your body and irradiates it from inside.   .  .  .”

Allow me to repeat Hirose Takashi’s question:  “And what media have reported this?  None.”  That’s because the media are incapable of covering serious (non-goofy) subjects.  Unfortunately, those vested with positions of responsibility and authority all over the world are impaired by a degree of goofiness, leaving them incapable of making the right decisions or taking the necessary steps to protect public safety and welfare.  Is this a permanent situation or just a temporary condition?


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How States Can Save Billions

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We’ve been reading a lot about fallout lately.  The Fukushima power plant disaster is now providing a lasting legacy all over the world.  This animation from the French national meteorological service, Météo-France, illustrates how the spread of the Fukushima fallout is migrating.

For the past three years, we have been living with the fallout from a financial “meltdown”, which resulted from deregulation, greed and the culture of “pervasive permissiveness” at the Federal Reserve, as discussed in the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report.  The fallout from the financial meltdown has also spread across the entire world.  Different countries have employed different approaches for coping with the situation.  In Ireland, the banks were bailed out at taxpayer expense, crippling that nation’s economy for generations to come.  As a result, the Irish citizens fought back, went to the polls and ousted the perfidious politicians who helped the banks avoid responsibility for their transgressions.   On the other hand, in Portugal, the government refused to impose austerity measures on the citizens, who should not be expected to pay the price for the financial mischief that gave rise to the current economic predicament.  Given the additional fact that Portugal, as a nation, was not a “player” in the risky games that nearly brought down the world economy, the recent decision by the Portuguese parliament is easy to understand.

In our own country, the various states have found it quite difficult to balance their budgets.  High unemployment, which refuses to abate, and depressed real estate valuation have devastated each state’s revenue base.  Because the states cannot print money, as the Federal Reserve does in order to pay the federal government’s bills, it has become necessary for the states to rely on creative gimmicks to reverse their misfortunes.  Most states had previously deployed numerous “economic development projects” over the years.  Such projects are taxpayer-funded subsidies to attract corporations and entice them to establish local operations.  Rex Nutting of MarketWatch recently took a critical look at those programs:

And yet, study after study show that these subsidies create few, if any, net jobs.  For instance, California’s Enterprise Zone program – which is supposed to boost business in 42 economically distressed communities – has cost the taxpayers $3.6 billion over 27 years, but to no avail.  A legislative analyst report in 2005 found that “EZs have little if any impact on the creation of new economic activity or employment.” Read more from the legislative analyst report.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to kill the EZ program and the even-more expensive redevelopment agency program, but he faces an uphill fight in the Legislature.  Such subsidies are popular with the legislators who receive boatloads of campaign contributions from businesses lucky enough to find a government teat to latch on to.

Nationwide, such giveaways from state and municipal governments amounted to more than $70 billion in 2010, according to Kenneth Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who has specialized in studying these subsidies.  That’s more than the states collect in corporate income taxes in a good year.  Read about Thomas’s book: “Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital”

And that $70 billion is twice as much money as would be required to fully fund the pensions owed to state and local government workers, the very same pensions that budget-cutting politicians across the country claim are responsible for the fiscal hole we’re in.

What Rex Nutting has suggested amounts to the elimination of a significant number of corporate welfare programs.  He has also dared to challenge the corporatist mantra that corporate welfare “creates jobs”.  We are supposed to believe that the only way states can balance their budgets is through the imposition of draconian austerity programs, designed to force the “little people” to – once again – pay the tab for Wall Street’s binge.  Because the voters have no lobbyists to protect their own interests, venal state and local politicians have set about slashing public safety expenditures (through mass layoffs of police and firefighters), closing parks and libraries, as well as under-funding public school systems.

Never mind that state and local governments could save $70 billion by cutting just one form of corporate welfare.  They would rather let you watch your house burn down.  You can’t afford that house anyway.


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The Wrong Playbook

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President Obama is still getting it wrong.  Nevertheless, we keep hearing that he is such a clever politician.  Count me among those who believe that the Republicans are setting Obama up for failure and a loss to whatever goofball happens to win the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012 – solely because of a deteriorating economy.  Obama had the chance to really save the economy and “right the ship”.  When he had the opportunity to confront the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama violated Rahm Emanuel’s infamous doctrine, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.  The new President immediately made a point of squandering the opportunity to overcome that crisis.  I voiced my frustration about this on October 7, 2010:

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

In September of 2009, I discussed a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  In analyzing Australia’s approach to the financial crisis, economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

On October 6, 2010, Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Workers in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile, America’s jobless rate has been hovering around 9 percent and the Federal Reserve found it necessary to print-up another $600 billion for a controversial second round of quantitative easing.  If that $600 billion had been used for the 2009 economic stimulus (and if the stimulus program had been more infrastructure-oriented) we would probably have enjoyed a result closer to that experienced by Australia.  Instead, President Obama chose to follow Japan’s strategy of perpetual bank bailouts (by way of the Fed’s “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP and multiple rounds of quantitative easing), sending America’s economy into our own “lost decade”.

The only member of the Clinton administration who deserves Obama’s ear is being ignored.  Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has been repeatedly emphasizing that President Obama is making a huge mistake by attempting to follow the Clinton playbook:

Many of President Obama’s current aides worked for Clinton and vividly recall Clinton’s own midterm shellacking in 1994 and his re-election two years later – and they think the president should follow Clinton’s script. Obama should distance himself from congressional Democrats, embrace deficit reduction and seek guidance from big business.  They assume that because triangulation worked for Clinton, it will work for Obama.

They’re wrong.  Clinton’s shift to the right didn’t win him re-election in 1996. He was re-elected because of the strength of the economic recovery.

By the spring of 1995, the American economy already had bounced back, averaging 200,000 new jobs per month.  By early 1996, it was roaring – creating 434,000 new jobs in February alone.

Obama’s 2011 reality has us losing nearly 400,000 jobs per month.  Nevertheless, there is this misguided belief that the “wealth effect” caused by inflated stock prices and the current asset bubble will somehow make the Clinton strategy relevant.  It won’t.  Instead, President Obama will adopt a strategy of “austerity lite”, which will send America into a second recession dip and alienate voters just in time for the 2012 elections.  Professor Reich recently warned of this:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

If inviting a double-dip recession weren’t dumb enough – how about a second financial crisis?  Just add more systemic risk and presto! The banks won’t have any problems because the Fed and the Treasury will provide another round of bailouts.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns recently wrote an essay focused on Treasury Secretary Geithner’s belief that we need big banks to be even bigger.

Even if the Republicans nominate a Presidential candidate who espouses a strategy of simply relying on Jesus to extinguish fires at offshore oil rigs and nuclear reactors – Obama will still lose.  May God help us!


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More Disaster And Dishonesty

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Unfortunately, the cynicism expressed in my last posting was well-founded.  The Japanese government has been misleading everyone about the extent of the nuclear hazards at the aptly-named Fukushima power plant.  The only remaining question is whether the Japanese government was knowingly misleading everyone or whether it was just passing along the deception generated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).  If the latter is the case, the Japanese are living under a similar system of “regulatory capture” to what we have in the United States.  The frustration I expressed about the difficulty involved in attempting to obtain credible information about the Japanese nuclear crisis was experienced and discussed by a number of other commentators.  Clive Crook put it this way:

From the start of this calamity I have wanted to know, “What is the worst that can happen at these nuclear sites?  Suppose everything that could go wrong does go wrong:  what then?”  I still don’t know the answer.  In what I have read so far — dozens of articles –nobody who knows what he is talking about has spelt this out carefully.

We are now learning that in 2008, the Japanese government had been warned by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the nuclear reactors on the island nation could not withstand an earthquake.  Through cables obtained by WikiLeaks, The Telegraph was able to provide this report:

The document states:  “He [the IAEA official] explained that safety guides for seismic safety have only been revised three times in the last 35 years and that the IAEA is now re-examining them.

“Also, the presenter noted recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants, and that this is a serious problem that is now driving seismic safety work.”

The cables also disclose how the Japanese government opposed a court order to shut down another nuclear power plant in western Japan because of concerns it could not withstand powerful earthquakes.

*   *   *

Another cable reported to Washington local concerns that a new generation of Japanese power stations that recycle nuclear fuel were jeopardising safety.

The cable, quoting a local newspaper, reports:  “There is something precarious about the way all electric power companies are falling in step with each other under the banner of the national policy.  We have seen too many cases of cost reduction competition through heightened efficiency jeopardizing safety.”

The cables also disclose how Taro Kono, a high-profile member of Japan’s lower house, told US diplomats in October 2008 that the government was “covering up” nuclear accidents.

The outrage expressed by Japanese citizens over their government’s handling of the entire situation – both pre-crisis and post-tsunami, is rapidly receiving more coverage.  American journalists who are covering the situation are expressing concern over their own safety.  NBC’s Lester Holt and his crew had been exposed to what was described as  “minute levels” of radiation, which was found on their shoes.

At a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on March 16, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko testified that despite the fact that the Japanese government had established an evacuation zone with a radius of only 12 miles from the Fukushima plant, the NRC had recommended a 50-mile evacuation zone for U.S. forces and American citizens.

ABC News quoted the reaction of an expert from Europe, who provided a harshly different message than the vague statements issued by the Japanese government:

“There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen,” European Union’s energy commissioner Günther Oettinger said today, according to various reports.  “Practically everything is out of control.  I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come.”

The coming days will reveal the extent of the misrepresentations by TEPCO and the Japanese government concerning the threat posed by the hazardous situation at the Fukushima power plant.  As I said last time:  It’s not looking good.


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Disaster And Dishonesty

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The recent earthquake in Japan caused one of the worst nuclear accidents in history.  At the aptly-named Fukushima nuclear facility, two reactors (#1 and #3) reportedly experienced “partial meltdowns” and hydrogen blasts while a third (#2) experienced “cooling problems”.  Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, we were given spotty, uninformative reports about the extent of the damage to the critical equipment, despite assurances that the “reactor vessels remain intact”.  The video depicting the explosion of the containment building for reactor #1 immediately raised questions about the risk of radiation leakage.

Within minutes after the earthquake struck, we were informed about “an incident” at Fukushima reactor #1, involving “overheating”.  We later learned that people within a 6-mile radius of the plant had been evacuated.  Shortly thereafter, the evacuation zone was expanded to 12 miles, resulting in the evacuation of 180,000 people.  Because the cooling systems for reactors #1 and #3 were not operating properly, it became necessary to pump in sea water to cool the fuel rods.  Despite government assurances that there had been no radiation leakage hazard, we later learned that there had been deliberate releases of reactor steam containing radioactive cesium.  The Union of Concerned Scientists provided this bit of information about cesium:

Cesium-137 is another radioactive isotope that has been released.  It has a half-life of about 30 years, so will take more than a century to decay by a significant amount.  Living organisms treat cesium-137 as if it was potassium, and it becomes part of the fluid electrolytes and is eventually excreted.  Cesium-137 is passed up the food chain.  It can cause many different types of cancer.

The news reports concerning the nuclear facility often seemed idiotic.  One article began with an explanation that the explosion at reactor #1 damaged the containment building only, causing the roof to blow off.  Later in the story, we were assured that although a “partial meltdown” may have been taking place within the reactor core, the reactor vessel remained intact.  Then came the remark that even if the reactor vessel began to leak radioactivity, the containment building would prevent the dissipation of those contaminants into the atmosphere.  The reporter apparently forgot about the statement a few paragraphs earlier that the containment building no longer had a roof.  Whoever wrote that story did an obvious, “cut and paste job” without realizing that the reassuring remarks about the containment building were no longer valid.  This was typical of the sloppy reportage of the Fukushima predicament.   .  .  . But hey – it was a weekend! Another tactic frequently employed in the lame coverage of the radiological situation would involve beginning a report with a stale factoid about reactor cooling problems and shifting the focus of the story over to the earthquake itself or to the tsunami.

A good deal of the frustration experienced by those attempting to ascertain the status of the potential nuclear hazards at Fukushima, was obviously due to the control over information flow exercised by the Japanese government.  I began to suspect that President Obama might have dispatched a team of Truth Suppressors from the Gulf of Corexit to assist the Japanese government with spin control.  An article by Norimitsu Onishi, Henry Fountain and Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times provided this history of how nuclear power hazards have been handled in Japan:

Over the years, Japanese plant operators, along with friendly government officials, have sometimes hidden episodes at plants from a public increasingly uneasy with nuclear power.

In 2007, an earthquake in northwestern Japan caused a fire and minor radiation leaks at the world’s largest nuclear plant, in Kashiwazaki City. An ensuing investigation found that the operator — Tokyo Electric — had unknowingly built the facility directly on top of an active seismic fault.  A series of fires inside the plant after the earthquake deepened the public’s fear.  But Tokyo Electric said it upgraded the facility to withstand stronger tremors and reopened in 2009.

Last year, another reactor with a troubled history was allowed to reopen, 14 years after a fire shut it down.  The operator of that plant, the Monju Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor, located along the coast about 220 miles west of Tokyo, tried to cover up the extent of the fire by releasing altered video after the accident in 1995.

Such a track record suggests that the lack of information concerning the Fukushima episode is the result of a lack of probity.

Nevertheless, after an entire weekend of attempting to find out what was transpiring in Fukushima, I finally came across an informative article by Thomas Maugh of the Los Angeles Times.  Here is the answer to the question no other media outlets were willing or able to address:

The worst that could happen if all cooling stopped is that the fuel would melt and fall to the floor of the containment vessel.  The containment vessel is designed to hold the hot fuel in, but the type of nuclear reactor in danger at the Fukushima plant —General Electric Mark One boiling water reactors — has been widely reported to have a vulnerability in its design that would let the fuel burn through the floor of the vessel.  If that happened, radiation could spread through the environment, but on a much more limited basis than happened at Chernobyl, where there was no containment vessel and the core contained graphite that burned, dispersing radioactivity widely. A massive plume of radioactive smoke and ash could spread from the site, exposing people for miles away, depending on the wind and weather.

Most news outlets provided us with “answers” from know-nothing politicians such as Chuck Schumer who — when asked about the future of nuclear power in America — seized the opportunity to trumpet the bogus narrative about “foreign oil”, despite the fact that oil is not used to produce electricity.

We are witnessing the hazardous consequences of entrusting unreliable individuals with authority over the use of nuclear reactors.  It’s not looking good.


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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?


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Some Good News For Once

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Since the Great Recession began three years ago, Americans have been receiving a daily dose of the most miserable news imaginable.  Our prevalent nightmare concerns the possibility that gasoline prices could find their way up to $10 per gallon as Muammar Gawdawful takes Libya into a full-scale civil war.

Some people tried to find a thread of hope in the latest non-farm payrolls report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The report was spun in several opposing directions by various commentators.  The single statement from the BLS report which seemed most important to me was the remark in the first sentence that    “. . .  the unemployment rate was little changed at 8.9 percent . . .”.  Nevertheless, David Leonhardt of The New York Times noted his suspicion that “the government is understating actual job growth” while providing his own upbeat read of the report.  On the other hand, at the Zero Hedge website, Tyler Durden made this observation:

Wonder why the unemployment rate is at an artificially low 8.9%?  Three simple words:  Labor Force Participation.  At 64.2%, it was unchanged from last month, and continues to be at a 25 year low.  Should the LFP return to its 25 trendline average of 66.1%, the unemployment rate would be 11.6%.

Indeed, the ugly truth is that as you spend more time pondering the current unemployment situation, you find an increasingly dismal picture.  Economist Mark Thoma came up with a “back of the envelope calculation” of the benchmarks he foresees as the unemployment situation abates:

7% unemployment in July of 2012

6% unemployment in March of 2013

5% unemployment in December of 2013

4% unemployment in September of 2014

If anything, relative to the last two recoveries, this forecast is optimistic.  Even so, it will still take two years to get to 6% unemployment (and if the natural rate is closer to 5.5% at that time, as I expect it will be, it will take another five months to fully close the gap). Things may be looking up, but we have a long way to go and it’s too soon to turn our backs on the unemployed.

Only three more years until we return to pre-crisis levels!  Whoopie!

For those in search of genuinely good news, I went on a quest to come up with some for this piece.  Here’s what I found:

For the truly desperate, the Salon website has introduced a new weekly feature entitled, “The Week In Uppers”.  It is a collection of stories, often including video clips, which will (hopefully) make you smile.  The items are heavy on good deeds – sometimes by celebrities.

I was quite surprised by this next “good news” item:  A report by Rex Nutting of MarketWatch, revealing this welcome fact:

.   .   .  the United States remains the biggest manufacturing economy in the world, producing about 20% of the value of global output in 2010  . . .  (Although fast-growing China will pass the United States soon enough.)

Even though we may soon drop to second place, at least our unemployment rate should be in decline by that point.  Here are some more encouraging factoids from Rex Nutting’s essay:

In 2010, U.S. factories shipped $5.03 trillion worth of goods out the door, up 9% from 2009’s horribly depressed output, according to the Census Bureau.

*   *   *

In 2010 alone, productivity in the manufacturing sector surged 6.7%. Fortunately for workers, it looks as if companies have squeezed as much extra output out of labor as they can right now.  For the first time since 1997, factories actually added jobs during the calendar year in 2010, as they hired 112,000 additional workers.

There will be further job gains as factories ramp up their production to meet rising demand, economists say.

According to the Institute for Supply Management’s monthly survey of corporate purchasing managers, business is booming.  The ISM index rose for a seventh straight month in February to 61.4%, matching the highest reading since 1983.

*   *   *

What is the ISM telling us?  “The manufacturing sector is on fire,” says Stephen Stanley, chief economist for Pierpont Securities.  The new orders index rose to 68%, the highest since 2004, and the employment index rose to 64.5%, the highest since 1973.

Factories are hiring because orders are stacking up faster than they can produce goods.

What’s behind the boom?  In part, it’s domestic demand for capital goods and consumer goods.  Businesses are finally beginning to believe in the recovery, so they’re starting to expand, which means new equipment must be purchased.

Be sure to read the full report if you want to re-ignite those long, lost feelings of optimism.

It’s nice to know that if you look hard enough you can still find some good news (at least for now).


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An Army Of Lobbyists For The Middle Class

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Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke appeared before the Senate Banking Committee this week to testify about the Fed’s monetary policy.  Scot Kersgaard of The American Independent focused our attention on a five-minute exchange between Colorado Senator Michael Bennett and The Ben Bernank, with an embedded video clip.  Senator Bennett asked Bernanke to share his opinions concerning the recommendations made by President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission.  Bernanke initially attempted to dodge the question with the disclaimer that the Fed’s authority extends to only monetary policy rather than fiscal policy – such as the work conducted by the deficit commission.  If Congressman Ron Paul had been watching the hearing take place, I’m sure he had a good, hard laugh at that statement.  Nevertheless, Bernanke couldn’t restrain himself from concurring with the effort to place the cost of Wall Street’s larceny on the backs of middle-class taxpayers.

The chant for “entitlement reform” continues to reverberate throughout the mainstream media as it has for the past year.  Last May, economist Dean Baker exposed this latest effort toward upward wealth redistribution:

Emboldened by the fact that none of them have gone to jail for their role in the financial crisis, the Wall Street gang is now gunning for Social Security and Medicare, the country’s most important safety net programs. Led by investment banker Pete Peterson, this crew is spending more than a billion dollars to convince the public that slashing these programs is the only way to protect our children and grandchildren from poverty.

A key propaganda tactic used by the “entitlement reform” crusaders is to characterize Social Security as an “entitlement” even though it is not (as I discussed here).  Phil Davis, avowed capitalist and self-described “serial entrepreneur”, wrote a great essay, which refuted the claim that Social Security is “broken” while explaining why it is not an “entitlement”.  Unfortunately, there are very few politicians who are willing to step forward to provide the simple explanation that Social Security is not an entitlement.  Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently made a statement to that effect before a senior citizens’ group in East Haven, Connecticut – without really providing an explanation why it is not an entitlement.  Susan Feiner wrote a great commentary on the subject last fall for womensenews.org.  Here is some of what she said:

Moreover, Social Security is not an entitlement program as it’s paid for entirely by payroll taxes.  It is an insurance program, not an entitlement. Not one penny of anyone’s Social Security comes out of the federal government’s general fund.

Social Security is, by law, wholly self-financing.  It has no legal authority to borrow, so it never has.

If this incredibly successful and direly needed program hasn’t ever borrowed a dime, why is the president and his hand-picked commissioners putting Social Security cuts (and/or increases in the retirement age) in the same sentence as deficit reduction?

The attempt to mischaracterize Social Security as an “entitlement” is not a “Right vs. Left” dispute —  It’s a class warfare issue.  There have been commentaries from across the political spectrum emphasizing the same fact:  Social Security is not an “entitlement”.  The assertion has appeared on the conservative patriotsteaparty.net website, the DailyKos on the Left and in a piece by independent commentator, Marti Oakley.

The battle for “entitlement reform” is just one front in the larger war being waged by Wall Street against the middle class.  Kevin Drum discussed this conflict in a recent posting at his Plutocracy Now blog for Mother Jones:

It’s about the loss of a countervailing power robust enough to stand up to the influence of business interests and the rich on equal terms.  With that gone, the response to every new crisis and every new change in the economic landscape has inevitably pointed in the same direction.  And after three decades, the cumulative effect of all those individual responses is an economy focused almost exclusively on the demands of business and finance.  In theory, that’s supposed to produce rapid economic growth that serves us all, and 30 years of free-market evangelism have convinced nearly everyone — even middle-class voters who keep getting the short end of the economic stick — that the policy preferences of the business community are good for everyone.  But in practice, the benefits have gone almost entirely to the very wealthy.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch made this observation on March 1:

Wall Street’s corrupt banks have lost their moral compass … their insatiable greed has become a deadly virus destroying its host nation … their campaign billions buy senate votes, stop regulators’ actions, manipulate presidential decisions.  Wall Street money controls voters, runs America, both parties.  Yes, Wall Street is bankrupting America.

Wake up America, listen:

  • “Our country is bankrupt.  It’s not bankrupt in 30 years or five years,” warns economist Larry Kotlikoff, “it’s bankrupt today.”
  • Economist Peter Morici:  “Capitalism is broken, America’s government is two bankrupt political parties bankrupting the country.”
  • David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director:  “If there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians” the “tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.”
  • BusinessWeek recently asked analyst Mary Meeker to run the numbers.  How bad is it? America really is bankrupt, with a “net worth of a negative $44 trillion.” Bankrupt.

And it will get worse.  Unfortunately, nothing can stop America’s self-destructive Wall Street bankers.  They simply do not care that their “doomsday capitalism” is destroying themselves from within, and is bankrupting America too.

On February 21, I quoted a statement made by bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO, which included this thought:

America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.

That essay by Bill Gross became the subject of an article by Terrence Keeley of Bloomberg News.  Mr. Keeley’s reaction to the suggestions made by Bill Gross was this:

To redeem Wall Street’s soul, radical solutions are clearly needed, but advocating the eradication of profit-based markets that have served humanity well on balance without a viable replacement is fanciful. Gross deserves an “A” for intent — but something more practical than a “heart transplant” is required to restore trust and efficacy to our banking system.

*   *   *

But an economy based on something other than profit risks misery and injustice of another sort.  The antibodies now needed aren’t those that negate profitability.  Rather, they are the ones that bind financial engineering to value creation and advancement of society.

Perhaps the most constructive solution to the problem is my suggestion from February 10:  Recruit and employ an army of lobbyists to represent and advance the interests of the middle class on Capitol Hill.  Some type of non-partisan, “citizens’ lobby” could be created as an online community.  Once its lobbying goals are developed and articulated, an online funding drive would begin.  The basic mission would be to defend middle-class taxpayers from the tyranny of the plutocracy that is destroying not just the middle class – but the entire nation.  Fight lobbyists with lobbyists!


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