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Widespread Disappointment With Financial Reform

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Exactly one year ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade.  The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank bill – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public.  My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed.  I concluded the posting with this remark:

The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.

During the year since that posting, I felt a bit less misanthropic each time someone spoke out, wrote an article or made a presentation demonstrating that our government’s “financial reform” effort was nothing more than political theater.  Last July, Rich Miller of Bloomberg News reported that according to a Bloomberg National Poll, almost eighty percent of those surveyed expressed “just a little or no confidence” that the financial reform bill would make their financial assets more secure.  Forty-seven percent believed that the bill would do more to protect the financial industry than consumers.  The American public is not as dumb as most people claim!

This past week brought us three great perspectives on the worthlessness of our government’s financial reform facade.  I was surprised that the most impressive presentation came from a Fed-head!   Thomas M. Hoenig, President and CEO of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, gave a speech at New York University’s Stern School of Business, concerning the future of “systemically important financial institutions” or “SIFIs” and the Dodd-Frank Act.  (Bill Black prefers to call them “systemically dangerous institutions” or “SDIs”.)   After a great discussion of the threat these entities pose to our financial system and the moral hazard resulting from the taxpayer-financed “safety net”, which allows creditors of the SIFIs to avoid accountability for risks taken, Tom Hoenig focused on Dodd-Frank:

Following this financial crisis, Congress and the administration turned to the work of repair and reform.  Once again, the American public got the standard remedies – more and increasingly complex regulation and supervision.  The Dodd-Frank reforms have all been introduced before, but financial markets skirted them.  Supervisory authority existed, but it was used lightly because of political pressure and the misperceptions that free markets, with generous public support, could self-regulate.

Dodd-Frank adds new layers of these same tools, but it fails to employ one remedy used in the past to assure a more stable financial system – simplification of our financial structure through Glass-Steagall-type boundaries.  To this end, there are two principles that should guide our efforts to restore such boundaries.  First, institutions that have access to the safety net should be restricted to certain core activities that the safety net was intended to protect – making loans and taking deposits – and related activities consistent with the presence of the safety net.

Second, the shadow banking system should be reformed in its use of money market funds and short-term repurchase agreements – the repo market.  This step will better assure that the safety net is not ultimately called upon to bail them out in crisis.

Another engaging perspective on financial reform efforts came from Phil Angelides, who served as chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which conducted televised hearings concerning the causes of the financial crisis and issued its final report in January.  On June 27, Angelides wrote an article for The Washington Post wherein he discussed what caused the financial crisis, the current efforts to “revise the historical narrative” of what led to the economic catastrophe, as well as the efforts to undermine, subvert and repeal the meager reforms Dodd-Frank authorized.  Angelides didn’t pull any punches when he upbraided Congressional Republicans for conduct which the Democrats have been too timid (or complicit) to criticize:

If you are Rep. Paul Ryan, you ignore the fact that our federal budget deficit has ballooned more than $10 trillion annually since the financial collapse.  You disregard the reality that two-thirds of the deficit increase is directly attributable to the economic downturn and bipartisan fiscal measures adopted to bolster the economy.  Instead of focusing on the real cause of the deficit, you conflate today’s budgetary disaster with the long-term challenges of Medicare so you can shred the social safety net.

*   *   *

If you are most congressional Republicans, you turn a blind eye to the sad history of widespread lending abuses that savaged communities across the country and pledge to block the appointment of anyone to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless its authority is weakened.  You ignore the evidence of pervasive excess that wrecked our financial markets and attempt to cut funding for the regulators charged with curbing it.  Across the board, you refuse to acknowledge what went wrong and then try to stop efforts to make it right.

David Sirota wrote a great essay for Salon entitled, “America’s unique hatred of finance reform”.  Sirota illustrated how bipartisan efforts to undermine financial reform are turning America into – what The Daily Show with Jon Stewart called – “Sweden’s Mexico”:

On one hand, Europe’s politics of finance seem to be gradually moving in the direction of Sweden — that is, in the direction of growth and stability.  As the Washington Post reports, that Scandinavian country — the very kind American Tea Party types write off with “socialist” epithets — has the kind of economy the U.S. can now “only dream of:  growing rapidly, creating jobs and gaining a competitive edge (as) the banks are lending, the housing market booming (and) the budget is balanced.”  It has accomplished this in part by seriously regulating its banking sector after it collapsed in the 1990s.

*   *   *

After passing an embarrassingly weak financial “reform” bill that primarily cemented the status quo, the U.S. government is now delaying even the most minimal new rules that were included in the legislation.  At the same time, Senate Republicans are touting their plans to defund any new financial regulatory agencies; the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee has declared that “Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks” — not the other way around; and the Obama administration is now trying to force potential economic partners to accept financial deregulation as a consequence of bilateral trade deals.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign already looks like a contest between two factions of the same financial elite — a dynamic that threatens to make the 2012 extravaganza a contest to see which party can more aggressively suck up to the banks.

Any qualified, Independent political candidate, who is willing to step up for the American middle class and set out a plan of action to fight the financial industry as well as its lobbyists, would be well-positioned for a 2012 election victory.


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The Monster Is Eating Itself

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Back on February 10, 2009 – before President Obama had completed his first month in office – two students at the Yale Law School, Jeffrey Tebbs and Ady Barkan, wrote an article which began with the point that the financial crisis was caused by the recklessness and greed of Wall Street executives.  Tebbs and Barkan proposed a “windfall bonus tax” on those corporate welfare queens of Wall Street, at the very moment when budget-restrained states began instituting their own economic austerity measures so that The Monster could be fed:

Last week, Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed a state budget that slashes crucial public services, including deep cuts to health care for kids and pregnant women, higher education and consumer protection.  She says that the cuts are necessary to close our state’s budget shortfall, but she’s apparently unwilling to increase taxes on Connecticut’s millionaires.

That is to say, while your hard-earned tax dollars are funding Christmas bonuses for Wall Street’s jet-set, Connecticut’s government will be cutting the programs and services that are crucial to your health and safety and to the vitality of our communities.

Since that time, “reverse Robin Hood” economic policies, such as the measures proposed by Governor Rell, have become painfully widespread.  As an aside:  Despite the fact that Governor Rell announced on November 9, 2009 that she would not seek re-election, the conservative Cato Institute determined that Rell was the only Republican Governor worthy of a failing grade on the Institute’s 2010 Fiscal Policy Report Card.

The entity I refer to as “The Monster” has been on a feeding frenzy since the financial crisis began.  Other commentators have their own names for this beast.  Michael Collins of The Economic Populist calls it “The Money Party”:

The Money Party is a very small group of enterprises and individuals who control almost all of the money and power in the United States.  They use their money and power to make more money and gain more power.  It’s not about Republicans versus Democrats.  The Money Party is an equal opportunity employer.  It has no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.  Democrats are as welcome as Republicans to this party.  It’s all good when you’re on the take and the take is legal.  Economic Populist

*   *   *

The party is also short on compassion or even the most elementary forms of common decency.  It’s OK to see millions of people evicted, jobless, without health care, etc., as long as short term profits are maintained for those CEO bonuses and other enrichment for a tiny minority.  It’s perfectly acceptable for this to go on despite available solutions.  If you don’t look, it’s not there should be their motto.

Beyond that, The Monster’s insensitivity has increased to the point where it has actually become too numb to realize that the tender morsel it is feasting on happens to be its own foot.  Until last year, The Monster had nearly everyone convinced that America would enjoy a “jobless recovery”, despite the fact that the American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  Well, the “jobless recovery” never happened and the new “magic formula” for economic growth is deficit reduction.  As I discussed in my last posting, Bill Gross of PIMCO recently highlighted the flaws in that rationale:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.

Simon Johnson, who formerly served as Chief Economist at the International Monetary Fund, conducted a serious analysis of whether such “fiscal contraction” could actually achieve the intended goal of expanding the economy.  The fact that the process has such an oxymoronic name as “expansionary fiscal contraction” should serve as a tip-off that it won’t work:

The general presumption is that fiscal contraction – cutting spending and/or raising taxes – will immediately slow the economy relative to the growth path it would have had otherwise.

*   *   *

There are four conditions under which fiscal contractions can be expansionary.  But none of these conditions are likely to apply in the United States today.

*   *   *

The available evidence, including international experience, suggests it is very unlikely that the United States could experience an “expansionary fiscal contraction” as a result of short-term cuts in discretionary domestic federal government spending.

Economist Stephanie Kelton explained that the best way to lower the federal budget deficit is to reduce unemployment:

The bottom line is this:  As long as unemployment remains high, the deficit will remain high.  So instead of continuing to put the deficit first, it’s time get to work on a plan to increase employment.

Here’s the formula:  Spending creates income.  Income creates sales.  Sales create jobs.

If you think you can cut the deficit without destroying jobs, dream on.

Dr. Kelton has identified the problem:  Deficit reduction schemes which disregard the impact on employment.  Nevertheless, The Monster is determined to press ahead with a “deficits first” agenda, regardless of the consequences.  The Monster will have its way because its army of lobbyists has President Obama under control.  As a result, we can expect increased unemployment, a diminished tax base, less consumer spending, less demand, decreased corporate income, lower GDP and more deficits.  The Monster’s gluttony has placed it on a course of self-destruction.  Perhaps that might be a good thing – if only it wouldn’t cause too much pain for the rest of us.


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Inviting More Trouble

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I frequently revert to my unending criticism of President Obama for “punting” on the 2009 economic stimulus program.  The most recent example was my June 13 posting, wherein I noted how Stephanie Kelton provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time during the first month of Obama’s Presidency, in a piece she published on William Black’s New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

As it turned out – that is exactly what happened.  Obama’s lack of leadership and his apologetic, half-assed use of government power to fight the recession has brought us to where we are today.  It may also bring Barack Obama and his family to a new address in January of 2013.

At this point, the “austerian” economists are claiming that the attenuated stimulus program’s failure to bring us more robust economic growth is “proof” that Keynesian economics “doesn’t work”.  The fact that many of these economists speak the way they do as a result of conflicts of interest – arising from the fact that they are on the payrolls of private firms with vested interests in maintaining the status quo – is lost on the vast majority of Americans.  Unfortunately, President Obama is not concerned with rebutting the arguments of these “hired guns”.  A recent poll by Bloomberg News revealed that the American public has successfully been fooled into believing that austerity measures could somehow revive our economy:

As the public grasps for solutions, the Republican Party is breaking through in the message war on the budget and economy.  A majority of Americans say job growth would best be revived with prescriptions favored by the party:  cuts in government spending and taxes, the Bloomberg Poll shows.  Even 40 percent of Democrats share that view.

*   *   *

Though Americans rate unemployment and the economy as a greater concern than the deficit and government spending, the issues are now closely connected.  Sixty-five percent of respondents say they believe the size of the federal deficit is “a major reason” the jobless rate hasn’t dropped significantly.

*   *   *

Republican criticism of the federal budget growth has gained traction with the public.  Fifty-five percent of poll respondents say cuts in spending and taxes would be more likely to bring down unemployment than would maintaining or increasing government spending, as Obama did in his 2009 stimulus package.

The voters are finally buying the corporatist propaganda that unemployment will recede if the government would just leave businesses alone. Forget about any government “hiring programs” – we actually need to fire more government employees!  With those annoying regulators off their backs, corporations would be free to hire again and bring us all to Ayn Rand heaven.  You are supposed to believe that anyone who disagrees with this or contends that government can play a role in job creation is a socialist.

Nevertheless, prominent individuals from the world of business and finance are making an effort to debunk these myths.  Bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO recently addressed the subject:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.  President Obama’s long-term budget makes just such a claim and Republican alternatives go many steps further.  Former Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota might be the Republicans’ extreme example, but his claim of 5% real growth based on tax cuts and entitlement reductions comes out of left field or perhaps the field of dreams.  The United States has not had a sustained period of 5% real growth for nearly 60 years.

Both parties, in fact, are moving to anti-Keynesian policy orientations, which deny additional stimulus and make rather awkward and unsubstantiated claims that if you balance the budget, “they will come.”  It is envisioned that corporations or investors will somehow overnight be attracted to the revived competitiveness of the U.S. labor market:  Politicians feel that fiscal conservatism equates to job growth.

*   *   *

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

Hedge fund manager, Barry Ritholtz discussed his own ideas for “Jump Starting the U.S. Economy” on his website, The Big Picture.  He concluded the piece by lamenting the fact that the federal debt/deficit debate is sucking all the air out of the room at the very time when people should be discussing job creation:

The focus on Deficits today is absurd, forcing us towards another 1938-type recession.  The time to reduce the government’s economic deficit and footprint is during a robust expansion, not during (or just after) major contractions.

During the de-leveraging following a credit crisis is the worst possible time to be deficit obsessed.

Don’t count on President Obama to say anything remotely similar to what you just read.  You would be expecting too much.


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Solar Mix

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The debate over global warming is about to heat up once again.  The politicians, pundits and scientists who get paid-off by the carbon-based fuel industry to debunk research demonstrating that climate change is caused by human activity – finally have some exciting news.  The upcoming period of increased sunspot activity, which has been the subject of so many scientific articles – solar max – is now expected to be even more disappointing than the downgraded, 2009 forecast.  (Back in 2006, NASA was reporting expectations of “the most intense solar maximum in fifty years”.)   Beyond that, many scientists are suggesting that once our current sunspot cycle ends, there might not be any sunspot activity for the following 20-30 years.  Some commentators believe that the consequences for earth could involve global cooling – or as some have discussed – a “mini ice age”.

This press release from the National Solar Observatory seems to be a stark departure from last week’s National Geographic report concerning an enormous coronal mass ejection (CME) which resulted from a solar flare on June 7.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that our current sunspot cycle won’t end until 2018.  The National Geographic piece included remarks by Phillip Chamberlin, an astrophysicist involved with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), one of several spacecraft which recorded the CME event.  Here is a passage concerning some of what Chamberlin had to say:

But he warned space-weather experts are concerned about future solar events.

The sun’s 11-year cycle of activity, driven by tangled surface magnetic fields, will hit its maximum in late 2013 or early 2014.  Magnetic messiness will peak around that time and prompt nasty solar storms.

“We’ll probably see [extreme] flares every couple of months instead of years,” Chamberlin said.

If one of these powerful flares – and its coronal mass ejection – faces Earth, the particles will pound satellite components with charged particles, short some out, and potentially cripple them.

The recent report from the National Solar Observatory reveals that astrophysicists are now making a 180-degree turn away from prior forecasts about solar activity:

A missing jet stream, fading spots, and slower activity near the poles say that our Sun is heading for a rest period even as it is acting up for the first time in years, according to scientists at the National Solar Observatory (NSO) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).

As the current sunspot cycle, Cycle 24, begins to ramp up toward maximum, independent studies of the solar interior, visible surface, and the corona indicate that the next 11-year solar sunspot cycle, Cycle 25, will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all.

*   *   *

“This is highly unusual and unexpected,” Dr. Frank Hill, associate director of the NSO’s Solar Synoptic Network, said of the results.  “But the fact that three completely different views of the Sun point in the same direction is a powerful indicator that the sunspot cycle may be going into hibernation.”

*   *   *

“If we are right,” Hill concluded, “this could be the last solar maximum we’ll see for a few decades.  That would affect everything from space exploration to Earth’s climate.”

In response to news inquiries and stories, Dr. Frank Hill issued a follow-up statement:

“We are NOT predicting a mini-ice age.  We are predicting the behavior of the solar cycle.  In my opinion, it is a huge leap from that to an abrupt global cooling, since the connections between solar activity and climate are still very poorly understood.  My understanding is that current calculations suggest only a 0.3 degree C decrease from a Maunder-like minimum, too small for an ice age.  It is unfortunate that the global warming/cooling studies have become so politically polarizing.”

So what can we expect here on earth?  Two years ago, NASA was predicting that our current sunspot cycle (Cycle 24) would have the lowest peak number of sunspots since Cycle 16, which peaked in 1928.  The peak sunspot activity for our current cycle will occur in 2013.  The May 29, 2009 report from NASA included this admonition from Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center:

“Even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather,” points out Biesecker.  “The great geomagnetic storm of 1859, for instance, occurred during a solar cycle of about the same size we’re predicting for 2013.”

The 1859 storm–known as the “Carrington Event” after astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare–electrified transmission cables, set fires in telegraph offices, and produced Northern Lights so bright that people could read newspapers by their red and green glow.  A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a similar storm occurred today, it could cause $1 to 2 trillion in damages to society’s high-tech infrastructure and require four to ten years for complete recovery. For comparison, Hurricane Katrina caused “only” $80 to 125 billion in damage.

So I guess we aren’t really getting “off the hook” just because our current sunspot cycle is turning out to be “below average”.  From the “climate change” standpoint, the new debate should concern the extent to which permanent damage can be inflicted upon the Earth before the anticipated “global cooling” begins.  The May, 2009 NASA article also told us what we can expect during periods of “low solar activity”:

Low solar activity has a profound effect on Earth’s atmosphere, allowing it to cool and contract.  Space junk accumulates in Earth orbit because there is less aerodynamic drag.  The becalmed solar wind whips up fewer magnetic storms around Earth’s poles.  Cosmic rays that are normally pushed back by solar wind instead intrude on the near-Earth environment.  There are other side-effects, too, that can be studied only so long as the sun remains quiet.

Regardless of what particular events are directly caused by solar activity (or the lack thereof) one thing is for certain:  We will be hearing a great deal about the latest National Solar Observatory report from the outspoken opponents to theories of human-caused climate change.


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Tinfoil Hat Session

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I must admit – I often enjoy a good conspiracy theory.  That’s just one of the reasons why I wrote a posting back on January 28, 2010 entitled, “The Conspiracy Against Conspiracy Theories”.  That particular piece concerned President Obama’s appointment of Cass Sunstein to the position of Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).  My beef about Sunstein was a reaction to an article written on January 12, 2010 by Daniel Tencer of The Raw Story website.  Dan Tencer pointed out that Mr. Sunstein co-authored a paper with Adrian Vermule, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2008 entitled, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”.  In the published paper, Sunstein and Vermule advocated for a government program to target “conspiracy groups”.  I concluded my posting with this statement:

A program to conspire against conspiracy groups could serve no other purpose but to validate the claims made by those groups.

(As an aside, for a recent update on the antics of Cass Sunstein, read this essay by Dan Froomkin of the Huffington Post.  It exposes Sunstein’s true function as the Obama administration’s saboteur of financial and environmental regulations, which somehow made it through Congress, despite the boatloads of payoffs “campaign contributions” from lobbyists.  Obama’s use of Sunstein, as well as his appointment of Jacob “Jack” Lew, who replaced his fellow Citigroup tool, Peter Orszag, as Director of the Office of Management and Budget – the subject of this rant – will likely alienate a large number of former Obama supporters.)

The latest event, which has motivated me to don my tinfoil hat, concerned the mainstream news media silence concerning the Level 4 Emergency, which began on June 6, 2011 at the Fort Calhoun nuclear reactor, located 20 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska.  The situation resulted from the Missouri River flood. The event involved an electrical fire, requiring plant evacuation because the fire evaporated some of the cooling water from the reactor’s spent fuel pool.  As a result of the Fukushima disaster, most of us know what happens when the pool containing spent fuel rods loses its water.  On the other hand, most of us don’t know that this event happened at the Fort Calhoun reactor last week.  I found out about it when I read this piece at The Business Insider website.

As of this writing, the only “mainstream news” article I could find from a Google search on the subject was this item from The Washington Post.  The short, “nothing to see here – move along” article began with this statement:

A small fire briefly knocked out the cooling system for used fuel at a nuclear power plant in Nebraska, but temperatures never exceeded safe levels and power was quickly restored, federal officials said Wednesday.

To learn just how dangerous the Fort Calhoun situation really was, listen to this 40-minute, WBAI Radio interview with Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates.  (A review of the Fairewinds Associates website reveals that Mr. Gundersen is a respected authority in the field of nuclear power engineering, who is no stranger to CNN.)  During the WBAI Radio interview, Mr. Gundersen made a number of points, which made me wonder about the caliber of chuckleheads we have working at the NRC, who are supposed to be protecting us from radiation hazards.  Worse yet, I began to wonder what decision the NRC might reach in considering the Tennessee Valley Authority’s request to reactivate “the zombie reactor” – Bellefonte 1 – in Hollywood, Alabama.  Scary stuff!

Pondering the question of why the Fort Calhoun reactor incident was “spiked” by most mainstream news outlets might lead many to suspect that the “big media” are out to protect the nuclear power industry – a big advertiser.  My own theory is focused on the possibility that there is a good deal of “self-censorship” taking place with respect to the subject of nuclear power plant hazards, out of fear that terrorists might somehow attempt to exploit those vulnerabilities.  This would be yet another area where the reaction to the September 11 attacks could end up causing more harm to Americans.  The pretext of “not educating the terrorists” is used to keep the American public in the dark – about how regulatory capture can compromise public safety.  I was reminded of what Dan Rather said about media “self-censorship” in a BBC interview during the early days of the “war on terror”, back in May of 2002:

Rather says:  “It is an obscene comparison – you know I am not sure I like it – but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tyres around people’s necks if they dissented.  And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck.  Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions, and to continue to bore in on the tough questions so often.  And again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism.”

Rather admits self-censorship:  “What we are talking about here – whether one wants to recognise it or not, or call it by its proper name or not – is a form of self-censorship.  It starts with a feeling of patriotism within oneself.  It carries through with a certain knowledge that the country as a whole – and for all the right reasons – felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within themselves.  And one finds oneself saying:  ‘I know the right question, but you know what?  This is not exactly the right time to ask it’.”

For the mainstream media, it’s never the “right time” to ask the tough questions.  That’s why so many people primarily rely on internet-based sources for the news.

June 18 Update: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article on June 16 entitled, “Rising water, falling journalism”, which characterized the news coverage of the Fort Calhoun situation as a “failure of the fourth estate”:

Newspapers and websites all over the country have reported on the flooding and fire at Fort Calhoun, but most articles simply paraphrase and regurgitate information from the NRC and OPPD (Omaha Public Power District) press releases, which aggregators and bloggers then, in turn, simply cut and paste.

*   *   *

Admittedly, it’s not easy finding information about Fort Calhoun, even if you’re a local reporter without a tight deadline.  OPPD press releases and the company’s online newsroom do not provide details about the plant’s layout and components.  Some of that information was available before 9/11 but was removed because of concerns about terrorism.  In protecting ourselves from enemies, we have also hidden vital information from ourselves.

Meanwhile, Arnie Gundersen has disclosed some disturbing information about the ongoing Fukushima crisis.  Did an American news outlet run the story?  Nope.  You can read the bad news at Al Jazeera.  This raises the question of why the American news media might believe that they have the power to determine whether terrorists could gain access to this type of information


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Obama On The Ropes

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You’ve been reading it everywhere and hearing it from scores of TV pundits:  The ongoing economic crisis could destroy President Obama’s hopes for a second term.  In a recent interview with Alexander Bolton of The Hill, former Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean warned that the economy is so bad that even Sarah Palin could defeat Barack Obama in 2012.  Dean’s statement was unequivocal:  “I think she could win.”

I no longer feel guilty about writing so many “I told you so” pieces about Obama’s failure to heed sane economic advice since the beginning of his term in the White House.  A chorus of commentators has begun singing that same tune.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I predicted that our new President would realize that his economic stimulus program was inadequate because he followed the advice from the wrong people.  After quoting the criticisms of a few economists who warned (in January and February of 2009) that the proposed stimulus would be insufficient, I said this:

Despite all these warnings, as well as a Bloomberg survey conducted in early February, revealing the opinions of economists that the stimulus would be inadequate to avert a two-percent economic contraction in 2009, the President stuck with the $787 billion plan.  He is now in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how and when he can roll out a second stimulus proposal.

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise – simply for the sake of compromise itself – is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform – should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.

Stephanie Kelton recently provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time, in a piece she published on William Black’s New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

*   *   *

In July 2009, I wrote a post entitled, “Gift-Wrapping the White House for the GOP.” In it, I said:

“If President Obama wants a second term, he must join the growing chorus of voices calling for another stimulus and press forward with an ambitious program to create jobs and halt the foreclosure crisis.”

With the recent announcement of Austan Goolsbee’s planned departure from his brief stint as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, much has been written about Obama’s constant rejection of the “dissenting opinions” voiced by members of the President’s economics team, such as those expressed by Goolsbee and his predecessor, Christina Romer.  Obama chose, instead, to paint himself into a corner by following the misguided advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Ezra Klein of The Washington Post recently published some excerpts from a speech (pdf) delivered by Professor Romer at Stanford University in May of 2011.  At one point, she provided a glimpse of the acrimony, which often arose at meetings of the President’s economics team:

Like the Federal Reserve, the Administration and Congress should have done more in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 to aid the recovery.  I remember that fall of 2009 as a very frustrating one.  It was very clear to me that the economy was still struggling, but the will to do more to help it had died.

There was a definite split among the economics team about whether we should push for more fiscal stimulus, or switch our focus to the deficit.  A number of us tried to make the case that more action was desperately needed and would be effective.  Normally, meetings with the President were very friendly and free-wheeling.  He likes to hear both sides of an issue argued passionately.  But, about the fourth time we had the same argument over more stimulus in front of him, he had clearly had enough.  As luck would have it, the next day, a reporter asked him if he ever lost his temper.  He replied, “Yes, I let my economics team have it just yesterday.”

By May of 2010, even Larry Summers was discussing the need for further economic stimulus measures, which I discussed in a piece entitled, “I Knew This Would Happen”.  Unfortunately, most of the remedies suggested at that time were never enacted – and those that were undertaken, fell short of the desired goal.  Nevertheless, Larry Summers is back at it again, proposing a new round of stimulus measures, likely due to concern that Obama’s adherence to Summers’ failed economic policies could lead to the President’s defeat in 2012.  Jeff Mason and Caren Bohan of Reuters reported that Summers has proposed a $200 billion payroll tax program and a $100 billion infrastructure spending program, which would take place over the next few years.  The Reuters piece also supported the contention that by 2010, Summers had turned away from the Dark Side and aligned himself with Romer in opposing Peter Orszag (who eventually took that controversial spin through the “revolving door” to join Citigroup):

During much of 2010, Obama’s economic advisers wrestled with a debate over whether to shift toward deficit reduction or pursue further fiscal stimulus.

Summers and former White House economist Christina Romer were in the camp arguing that the recession that followed the financial markets meltdown of 2008-2009 was a unique event that required aggressive stimulus to avoid a long period of stagnation similar to Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s.

Former White House budget director Peter Orszag was among those who cautioned against a further big stimulus, warning of the need to be mindful of ballooning budget deficits.

By the time voters head to the polls for the next Presidential election, we will be in Year Four of our own “lost decade”.  Accordingly, President Obama’s new “Jobs Czar” – General Electric CEO, Jeffrey Immelt – is busy discussing new plans, which will be destined to go up in smoke when Congressional Republicans exploit the opportunity to maintain the dismal status quo until the day arrives when disgruntled voters can elect President Palin.  Barack Obama is probably suffering from some awful nightmares about that possibility.


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Taibbi Tackles A Tool

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A few weeks ago, I saw Andrew Ross Sorkin’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher.  At one point during the discussion, Sorkin asserted that the financial crisis of 2008 did not result from the violation of any laws.  I immediately screamed “Tool!” at the teevee.  Worse yet, because Sorkin is not an attorney, his legal opinions are not worth the electrons used to convey them.

Since that time, ARS has continued with his bankster exoneration crusade.  In the process, he has drawn criticism from such authorities as William Black.

On May 24, Robert Scheer of Truthdig posted a review of the HBO movie-adaptation of Sorkin’s book, Too Big To Fail.  Scheer’s review demonstrated how “access journalism” often creates fawning sycophants.  Scheer closed the piece with this thought:

Perhaps the main value of the book and film is the instruction they provide on the limits of mainstream journalism in the decade that led up to the meltdown. Sorkin, who rose to be a business editor at the Times, covered Wall Street deal-making in exquisite detail, relying on an access journalism that has often proved deeply flawed in traditional business news coverage. What was largely ignored as it was unfolding was the story of the unbridled power of Wall Street financiers over the political process that caused this tragedy for so many tens of millions who have lost jobs and homes.

On June 6, Sorkin wrote a piece for his Dealbook blog in defense of Goldman Sachs.  The essay seemed to be particularly focused on the vulnerability of Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, to perjury charges resulting from his testimony before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Carl Levin. Sorkin concluded that the evidence was “far from convincing” that Blankfein lied when he testified that Goldman “didn’t have a massive short” position against the housing market.

It’s difficult to avoid turning up on Matt Taibbi’s radar when one is carrying water for Goldman Sachs.  Taibbi immediately set about debunking Sorkin’s Goldman piece on June 7.  Taibbi did a thorough job of making it clear that Blankfien lied, using a similar analysis to what I expressed on May 19.  While focusing on Sorkin’s perspective, Taibbi made an especially strong point, reminiscent of the debate which has arisen concerning the ethics of economists in the aftermath of the film, Inside Job. Economists who publish “academic studies” on a subject don’t usually feel obligated to disclose that they are on the payrolls of companies who could benefit from that that type of support.  It appears as though Sorkin may be suffering from a similar affliction.  Consider this point from the beginning of Taibbi’s retort to Sorkin’s June 6 defense of Goldman:

The Sorkin piece reads like it was written by the bank’s marketing department, which may not be an accident. In November of last year, the New York Times announced that “Dealbook” was entering into a sponsorship agreement with a variety of companies, including … Goldman, Sachs. This is from that announcement last year:

DealBook  will also feature news and insights on deal-related topics from  Business Day’s well-known roster of leading business reporters, which  includes recent hires in addition to a veteran stable of Wall Street’s  most highly-regarded journalists.

Barclays Capital, Goldman Sachs, Sotheby’s and Tata Consultancy Services are charter advertisers for the relaunch of DealBook.

“This  is the next step in the evolution of DealBook, providing a community of  highly-engaged readers and busy executives with essential news and  insights, and keeping them plugged in to the most important news of the  day,” said Andrew Ross Sorkin, DealBook editor.

Even last year I thought it was a terrible decision by the Times to take money from Goldman in the wake of an unprecedented period of financial corruption – especially to sponsor, of all things, business reporting.

But now? This looks like a joke. In Russia in the Yeltsin years, reporters had a term for selling editorial print content to mobsters. They called it “selling jeans,” a play on the old Soviet-era black-marketeer practice of trading rabbit hats to tourists for their Levi’s. This Sorkin piece has the unmistakable look of a brand-new set of 501s to me. Pieces like this undermine the great work that reporters like Gretchen Morgenson have done in the paper in recent years.

Once again, Matt Taibbi has used his unique style to keep the spotlight on the malefaction which caused the financial crisis and the subsequent wrongdoing, as well as the failure of the mainstream media to give a damn about any of it.

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Hillary Throws A Tupperware Party

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While reading through Saturday’s Links at the Naked Capitalism website, I came across a posting by Jane Hamsher entitled, “Hillary Clinton Hosts ‘Iraq Opportunities’ Party For War Profiteers”.  I was reminded that a war, initiated under the pretext of finding Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”, was really all about creating “Iraq Opportunities”.  Using the “good cop / bad cop” routine, the “bad cops” of our One-Party System (the “Republican” branch of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party) promoted a war, which the “good cop” Democrat branch of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party claimed it was “forced” to support.  Just because Saddam wasn’t really stockpiling any weapons of mass destruction, doesn’t mean we can’t find any “Iraq Opportunities”.

Sure, there’s been a “changing of the guard” since the Iraq war began, but a look at the guest list for Hillary’s “Iraq Opportunities Party” will reveal the identities of some corporations, which expect to benefit from the expenditure of human lives and trillions of taxpayer dollars on the Iraq war effort.  Of course, Halliburton and KBR were invited to send some partygoers to the fete.  But don’t forget – the Obama Administration has been in charge for over two years  . . . so Alex von Sponek of Goldman Sachs was on the guest list.  As you can imagine, a Tupperware Party just wouldn’t be a Tupperware Party without a representative from Tupperware in attendance.  Accordingly, Rick Goins, the company’s CEO, received an invitation.

News of this event confirmed my worst suspicions about the Iraq war.  I wasn’t simply reacting to what Jane Hamsher had to say about Hillary’s Tupperware Party:

As Congress launches a bipartisan PR campaign to stay in Iraq forever, the White House throws a corporate looting party.

Ben White of Politico described the event as an expansion of Wall Street’s tentacles:

FIRST LOOK:  WALL STREET IN IRAQ? – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary Tom Nides (formerly chief administrative officer at Morgan Stanley) will host a group of corporate executives at State this morning as part of the Iraq Business Roundtable.  Corporate executives from approximately 30 major U.S. companies – including financial firms Citigroup, JPMorganChase and Goldman Sachs – will join U.S. and Iraqi officials to discuss economic opportunities in the new Iraq.

While most of us have been conditioned to think of the Iraq War as a product of the neoconservative agenda, several commentators have discussed the role of neoliberalism as a motivator for the invasion of Iraq.  In a great essay entitled, “On Neoliberalism”, Sherry Ortner of the Anthropology Of This Century website, discussed the role of what Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, called “disaster capitalism” in bringing us to that moment of “shock and awe”:

If social or natural disasters do not offer themselves up, Klein shows convincingly that they will be manufactured, the war in Iraq being the latest case in point.  Let us follow the Iraq war thread into David Harvey’s 2007 book, A Short History of Neo-Liberalism, where it is his opening example.   Like Klein, Harvey sees “the management and manipulation of crises” (p. 162), whether floods, wars, or financial melt-downs, as part and parcel of establishing the neoliberal agenda.  And like Klein, he provides abundant evidence to show that the war in Iraq was a crisis manufactured to “impose by main force on Iraq… a state apparatus whose fundamental mission was to facilitate conditions for profitable capital accumulation”(p. 7).

Harvey offers a clear definition of neoliberalism as a system of “accumulation by dispossession,” which has four main pillars:  1) the “privatization and commodification” of public goods; 2) “financialization,” in which any kind of good (or bad) can be turned into an instrument of economic speculation; 3) the “management and manipulation of crises” (as above); and 4) “state redistribution,” in which the state becomes an agent of the upward redistribution of wealth (159-164 passim).

Harvey places particular emphasis on the last point, the upward redistribution of wealth.  He takes issue with other writers who argue that the enormous growth of social inequality since the beginnings of neoliberalization in the 1970s is an unfortunate by-product of what is otherwise a sound economic theory.  Instead Harvey sees the vast enrichment of an upper class of capital owners and managers at the expense of everyone else as an intrinsic part of the neoliberal agenda:  “Redistributive effects and increasing social inequality have in fact been such a persistent feature of neoliberalization as to be regarded as structural to the whole project.” (p. 16).

The only real surprise to me was the revelation that the elite “upper class of capital owners and managers” likes to attend Tupperware parties.


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Obama And The TARP

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I always enjoy it when a commentator appearing on a talk show reminds us that President Obama has become a “tool” for the Wall Street bankers.  This theme is usually rebutted with the claim that the TARP bailout happened before Obama took office and that he can’t be blamed for rewarding the miscreants who destroyed our economy.  Nevertheless, this claim is not entirely true.  President Bush withheld distribution of one-half of the $700 billion in TARP bailout funds, deferring to his successor’s assessment of the extent to which the government should intervene in the banking crisis.  As it turned out, during the final weeks of the Bush Presidency, Hank Paulson’s Treasury Department declared that there was no longer an “urgent need” for the TARP bailouts to continue.  Despite that development, Obama made it clear that anyone on Capitol Hill intending to get between the banksters and that $350 billion was going to have a fight on their hands.  Let’s jump into the time machine and take a look at my posting from January 19, 2009 – the day before Obama assumed office:

On January 18, Salon.com featured an article by David Sirota entitled:  “Obama Sells Out to Wall Street”.  Mr. Sirota expressed his concern over Obama’s accelerated push to have immediate authority to dispense the remaining $350 billion available under the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout:

Somehow, immediately releasing more bailout funds is being portrayed as a self-evident necessity, even though the New York Times reported this week that “the Treasury says there is no urgent need” for additional money.  Somehow, forcing average $40,000-aires to keep giving their tax dollars to Manhattan millionaires is depicted as the only “serious” course of action.  Somehow, few ask whether that money could better help the economy by being spent on healthcare or public infrastructure.  Somehow, the burden of proof is on bailout opponents who make these points, not on those who want to cut another blank check.

Discomfort about another hasty dispersal of the remaining TARP funds was shared by a few prominent Democratic Senators who, on Thursday, voted against authorizing the immediate release of the remaining $350 billion.  They included Senators Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington).  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Earlier last week, Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed.  The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At this juncture, Obama is engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the next $350 billion will not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Of course, we all know how that worked out  .   .   .  another Obama promise bit the dust.

The new President’s efforts to enrich the Wall Street banks at taxpayer expense didn’t end with TARP.  By mid-April of 2009, the administration’s “special treatment” of those “too big to fail” banks was getting plenty of criticism.  As I wrote on April 16 of that year:

Criticism continues to abound concerning the plan by Turbo Tim and Larry Summers for getting the infamous “toxic assets” off the balance sheets of our nation’s banks.  It’s known as the Public-Private Investment Program (a/k/a:  PPIP or “pee-pip”).

*   *   *

One of the harshest critics of the PPIP is William Black, an Economics professor at the University of Missouri.  Professor Black gained recognition during the 1980s while he was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).

*   *   *

I particularly enjoyed Black’s characterization of the PPIP’s use of government (i.e. taxpayer) money to back private purchases of the toxic assets:

It is worse than a lie.  Geithner has appropriated the language of his critics and of the forthright to support dishonesty.  That is what’s so appalling — numbering himself among those who convey tough medicine when he is really pandering to the interests of a select group of banks who are on a first-name basis with Washington politicians.

The current law mandates prompt corrective action, which means speedy resolution of insolvencies.  He is flouting the law, in naked violation, in order to pursue the kind of favoritism that the law was designed to prevent.  He has introduced the concept of capital insurance, essentially turning the U.S. taxpayer into the sucker who is going to pay for everything.  He chose this path because he knew Congress would never authorize a bailout based on crony capitalism.

Although President Obama’s hunt for Osama bin Laden was a success, his decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – became Obama’s own “Tora Bora moment”, at which point he allowed economic recovery to continue on its elusive path away from us.  Economist Steve Keen recently posted this video, explaining how Obama’s failure to promote an effective stimulus program has guaranteed us something worse than a “double-dip” recession:  a quadruple-dip recession.

Many commentators are currently discussing efforts by Republicans to make sure that the economy is in dismal shape for the 2012 elections so that voters will blame Obama and elect the GOP alternative.  If Professor Keen is correct about where our economy is headed, I can only hope there is a decent Independent candidate in the race.  Otherwise, our own “lost decade” could last much longer than ten years.


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