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From Cover-up to Bailout

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It has been one year since the earthquake and tsunami which caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophe.  From the very beginning (March 14, 2011) I suspected a cover-up:

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”.

Throughout the year following the Fukushima disaster, there has been an unending series of accounts concerning efforts by the plant operator, Tepco, as well as by governmental officials to cover-up the true extent of this tragedy.  The hazardous radiation levels to which local residents were subjected, have become the focus of the most recent news reports exposing cover-up tactics.  Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar was recently interviewed for Russia Today.  Escobar reported that Fukushima officials concealed radiation data vital to safely evacuate people from that area.  This was accomplished by the deletion of e-mails detailing the spread of radiation.  An unidentified official (or several officials) from Fukushima prefecture should face responsibility for the loss of that data.  At one point during the interview, Escobar remarked that the situation “sounds and looks and quacks like a major cover-up”.  He expects that ultimately, “a low-level official” will take the fall for this transgression, with no consequences other than a generous severance package.

The Mainichi Daily News report on this suspicious situation revealed that officials from Fukushima prefecture deleted five days of early radiation dispersion data.  In typical bureaucratic fashion, Fukushima prefecture officials claimed that “it was the responsibility of the central government to release the data”.

The obfuscation tactics employed by the plant operator, Tepco, have been apparent since the onset of this disaster.  Nevertheless, Tepco continues to “play dumb”.  In a March 28 report by Karen Sloan of the Associated Press, Tepco characterized the situation with the explanation that “conditions could be worse than officials had pictured”.  The report pointed out that there are “fatally–high radiation levels” at the #2 reactor with less water than anticipated available  for cooling the reactor.  The damage is so severe that Tepco will need to “develop special equipment and technology” to decommission the plant.  Worse yet, the other reactors which experienced meltdowns “could be in worse shape”.  You can watch the video version of Karen Sloan’s report here.  As for those “fatally–high radiation levels”, Anne Sewell of the Digital Journal pointed out that measurements revealed those levels to be “up to 10 times the lethal dose”.  Beyond that, Ms. Sewell didn’t hesitate to remind her readers of the continuing problems encountered by those who have reported on this crisis:

Japanese authorities and Tepco representatives have been caught lying about the true situation at Fukushima on numerous occasions, which adds to the overwhelming stress on the residents.

First-hand accounts of the situation in Fukushima prefecture are provided by blogger Lori Mochizuki and her cohorts at the Fukushima Diary website.  Their motto appears on the masthead of the site:  “We are against the media blackout – Please support us so that we may inform the world.”

Those interested in keeping-up with the slow trickle of truth about this tragedy can follow the Fukushima Update website.   Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Associates, is another source who provides regular updates on Fukushima.

As we have witnessed in the aftermath of the financial crisis, those entities responsible for the world’s worst disasters always find themselves rewarded with taxpayer-funded bailouts.  The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe is yet another example of this principle.  On March 29, Kentaro Hamada of Reuters reported that Tepco has asked the Japanese government for a $12.6 billion taxpayer-funded bailout.  (This amounts to 1 trillion yen.)  This amount would be in addition to the 850 billion yen which Tepco requested from the government in order to provide victim compensation.  That’s right – a free $10.7 billion insurance policy!  Is that coverage available to other companies?  I’m afraid to ask!  Nevertheless, some Japanese officials insist that the indemnity should come at a price – as the Reuters article explained:

The government is keen to obtain an initial majority stake in Tepco in return for the fund injection, with an option to boost the stake to two-thirds if the firm drags its feet on corporate reforms.  A final decision, however, would have to wait until the company finds a new chairman, a second source with knowledge of the matter said.

*   *   *

Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who is responsible for approving a public fund injection, has said he wants the government to have a significant say in managing Tepco, but the two sides have differed over how big the government stake should be.

Moral hazard and nuclear radiation hazard make such a wonderful combination!


 

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Buddy Roemer Struggles to Become Visible

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His crusade against corruption in politics has made him the invisible Presidential candidate.  The mainstream news media have no interest in him.  His anti-status quo message is probably the reason why.  Andrew Kreig of Washington’s Blog reported that Buddy Roemer appeared with reformed ex-convict / former lobbyist Jack Abramoff before a cozy, standing-room-only audience of 120, convened on March 22 by the non-partisan Committee for the Republic.  For those unfamiliar with Buddy Roemer, Kreig provided this summary of the candidate’s background and political perspective:

“I don’t think the answer is the Republican Party,” said the former two-term governor of Louisiana, who became a Republican in 1991 and returned to politics last year after a 16-year absence.  Earlier, he served four terms as a Democratic congressman beginning in the 1980, running unopposed in his last three races.

“And,” he continued, “I don’t think the answer is the Democratic Party.”  He says both parties are controlled by special interests and political action committees (PACs), whose checks he has refused to take since his first race three decades ago.

*   *   *

The big knock on Roemer is that he lacks high poll numbers and name recognition, doubtless because GOP debate-organizers excluded him.  Yet he was doing better in certain key criteria than some other candidates invited repeatedly for nationally broadcast debates.  Roemer concluded that his basic problem was that GOP chieftains did not want him to describe his reform message.

Therefore, Roemer’s campaign is now focused on winning the Americans Elect nomination to be on the November ballot in all 50 states.  Then he wants 15% support in poll numbers so he will be included in debates with the Democratic and Republican nominees.

On December 12, I discussed some of the criticism directed at Americans Elect.  Most notably, Richard Hansen, a professor at the University of  California at Irvine Law School, wrote an essay for Politico, which was harshly critical of Americans Elect.  Professor Hansen concluded the piece with these observations:

But the biggest problem with Americans Elect is neither its secrecy nor the security of its election.  It is the problems with internal fairness and democracy.  To begin with, according to its draft rules, only those who can provide sufficient voter identification that will satisfy the organization – and, of course, who have Internet access – will be allowed to choose the candidate.  These will hardly be a cross section of American voters.

In addition, an unelected committee appointed by the board, the Candidates Certification Committee, will be able to veto a presidential/vice presidential ticket deemed not “balanced” – subject only to a two-thirds override by delegates.

It gets worse.  Under the group’s bylaws, that committee, along with the three other standing committees, serves at the pleasure of the board – and committee members can be removed without cause by the board.  The board members were not elected by delegates; they chose themselves in the organization’s articles of incorporation.

The bottom line:  If Americans Elect is successful, millions of people will have united to provide ballot access not for a candidate they necessarily believe in – like a Ross Perot or Ralph Nader – but for a candidate whose choice could be shaped largely by a handful of self-appointed leaders.

Despite the veneer of democracy created by having “delegates” choose a presidential candidate through a series of Internet votes, the unelected, unaccountable board of Americans Elect, funded by secret money, will control the process for choosing a presidential and vice presidential candidate – who could well appear on the ballot in all 50 states.

Roemer’s ability to survive this questionable nomination process is just the first hurdle.  Even if he wins that nomination, he will be confronted by critics of Americans Elect to defend that organization’s controversial nomination procedure.  Nevertheless, if none of his opponents from that nomination campaign step up to oppose the result, Roemer might just breeze through any questions concerning that issue.

One interesting way to get a look at Buddy Romer is to read his Twitter feed – (@BuddyRoemer).  Roemer’s staff members occasionally post tweets about such subjects as the candidate’s desire to restore the “Made in America” label so that consumers would have the choice to buy products from manufacturers who employ their neighbors.  Here are some of Buddy’s own tweets:

If Santorum and Gingrich don’t get the GOP nomination, will they return to lobbying?  Or keep their records clean for 2016?

“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.” – George Washington

RT “@maximosis:  The more people wake up from their tacit acceptance of the corporatocracy, the more apparent these abuses will become.”

“The people do not control America, the big checks do.”

From 1998-2010, the Financial, Insurance, Real Estate sectors spent $6.8 BILLION in lobbying & campaign donations.

Millions $$ in earmarks go to top Congressional campaign donors.  Here are some striking examples >>http://thelobbyisteffect.com/2012/02/28/earmarks-are-a-microcosm-of-how-government-works/ #corruption

At his campaign website, supporters are encouraged to post tweets to Romer’s Twitter feed in addition to making contributions within the self-imposed, $100 limit.  At the “Blog” section, there are links to videos of the candidate’s television appearances.  A visit to the “Issues” section of his website will reveal Roemer’s position on banking reform:

As a small business banker, Buddy Roemer is proud to have chosen smart investments that kept his bank on solid footing while others were taking bailouts from the government to remain solvent.  Banking is too important to be left to the bankers, but Buddy recognizes that regulation of the industry must be a fine balance between too much and too little.

That sure sounds better than Romney’s “regulations kill jobs” theme and Obama’s track record of giving the banks everything they want, with revolving doors connecting the West Wing to Citigroup and Goldman Sachs.

The big question will be whether (as the Americans Elect nominee) Romer could accumulate the support from 15% of poll respondents so that he could participate in the Presidential debates with Obama and Romney.  It sure would be interesting to see him on the stage with those two.  The public might actually take interest in the process.



 

Too Important To Ignore

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On March 21, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas released a fantastic document:  its 2011 Annual Report, featuring an essay entitled, “Choosing the Road to Prosperity – Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now”.  The essay was written by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.

While reading Harvey Rosenblum’s essay, I was constantly reminded of the creepy “JOBS Act” which is on its way to President Obama’s desk.  Simon Johnson (former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund) recently explained why the JOBS Act poses the same threat as the deregulatory measures which helped cause the financial crisis:

With the so-called JOBS bill, on which the Senate is due to vote Tuesday, Congress is about to make the same kind of mistake again – this time abandoning much of the 1930s-era securities legislation that both served investors well and helped make the US one of the best places in the world to raise capital.  We find ourselves again on a bipartisan route to disaster.

*   *   *

The idea behind the JOBS bill is that our existing securities laws – requiring a great deal of disclosure – are significantly holding back the economy.

The bill, HR3606, received bipartisan support in the House (only 23  Democrats voted against).  The bill’s title is JumpStart Our Business Startup Act, a clever slogan – but also a complete misrepresentation.

The bill’s proponents point out that Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) of stock are way down.  That is true – but that is also exactly what you should expect when the economy teeters on the brink of an economic depression and then struggles to recover because households’ still have a great deal of debt.

*   *   *

Professor John Coates hit the nail on the head:

“While the various proposals being considered have been characterized as promoting jobs and economic growth by reducing regulatory burdens and costs, it is better to understand them as changing, in similar ways, the balance that existing securities laws and regulations have struck between the transaction costs of raising capital, on the one hand, and the combined costs of fraud risk and asymmetric and unverifiable information, on the other hand.” (See p.3 of this December 2011 testimony.)

In other words, you will be ripped off more.  Knowing this, any smart investor will want to be better compensated for investing in a particular firm – this raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  The effect on job creation is likely to be negative, not positive.

Simon Johnson’s last paragraph reminded me of a passage from Harvey Rosenblum’s Dallas Fed essay, wherein he was discussing why the economic recovery from the financial crisis has been so sluggish:

Similarly, the contributions to recovery from securities markets and asset prices and wealth have been weaker than expected.  A prime reason is that burned investors demand higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects. They remain uncertain about whether the financial system has been fixed and whether an economic recovery is sustainable.

To repeat what Simon Johnson said, combined with the above-quoted paragraph:  the demand by “burned investors” for “higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects” raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  How quickly we forget the lessons of the financial crisis!

The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report began with an introductory letter from its president, Richard W. Fisher.  Fisher noted that while “memory fades with the passage of time” it is important to recall the position in which the “too-big-to fail” banks placed our economy, thus leading Congress to pass into law the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd–Frank).  Although Harvey Rosenblum’s essay was primarily focused on the Dodd-Frank Act’s efforts to address the systemic risk posed by the existence of those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks, other measures from Dodd-Frank were mentioned.  More important is the fact that the TBTFs have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why this has happened:

The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008.  They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power.  They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation.  Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.

The ability of the financial sector “to resist the pressures of federal regulation” also happens to be the primary reason for the perverse effort toward de-regulation, known as the JOBS Act.  At the Seeking Alpha website, Felix Salmon reflected on the venality which is driving this bill through the legislative process:

There’s no good reason at all for this:  it’s basically a way for unpopular incumbent lawmakers who voted for Dodd-Frank to try to weasel their way back into the big banks’ good graces and thereby open a campaign-finance spigot they desperately need.

I don’t fully understand the political dynamics here.  A bill which was essentially drafted by a small group of bankers and financiers has managed to get itself widespread bipartisan support, even as it rolls back decades of investor protections.  That wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago, and I’m unclear (about) what has changed.  But one thing is coming through loud and clear:  anybody looking to Congress to be helpful in the fight to have effective regulation of financial institutions, is going to be very disappointed.  Much more likely is that Congress will be actively unhelpful, and will do whatever the financial industry wants in terms of hobbling regulators and deregulating as much activity as it possibly can.  Dodd-Frank, it seems, was a brief aberration.  Now, we’re back to business as usual, and a captured Congress.

The next financial crisis can’t be too far down the road   .   .   .


No Consensus About the Future

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As the election year progresses, we are exposed to wildly diverging predictions about the future of the American economy.  The Democrats are telling us that in President Obama’s capable hands, the American economy keeps improving every day – despite the constant efforts by Congressional Republicans to derail the Recovery Express.  On the other hand, the Republicans keep warning us that a second Obama term could crush the American economy with unrestrained spending on entitlement programs.  Meanwhile, in (what should be) the more sober arena of serious economics, there is a wide spectrum of expectations, motivated by concerns other than partisan politics.  Underlying all of these debates is a simple question:  How can one predict the future of the economy without an accurate understanding of what is happening in the present?  Before asking about where we are headed, it might be a good idea to get a grip on where we are now.  Nevertheless, exclusive fixation on past and present conditions can allow future developments to sneak up on us, if we are not watching.

Those who anticipate a less resilient economy consistently emphasize that the “rose-colored glasses crowd” has been basing its expectations on a review of lagging and concurrent economic indicators rather than an analysis of leading economic indicators.  One of the most prominent economists to emphasize this distinction is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Hussman’s most recent Weekly Market Comment contains what has become a weekly reminder of the flawed analysis used by the optimists:

On the economy, our broad view is based on dozens of indicators and multiple methods, and the overall picture is much better described as a modest rebound within still-fragile conditions, rather than a recovery or a clear expansion.  The optimism of the economic consensus seems to largely reflect an over-extrapolation of weather-induced boosts to coincident and lagging economic indicators — particularly jobs data.  Recall that seasonal adjustments in the winter months presume significant layoffs in the retail sector and slow hiring elsewhere, and therefore add back “phantom” jobs to compensate.

Hussman’s kindred spirit, Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI), has been criticized for the predictiction he made last September that the United States would fall back into recession.  Nevertheless, the ECRI reaffirmed that position on March 15 with a website posting entitled, “Why Our Recession Call Stands”.  Again, note the emphasis on leading economic indicators – rather than concurrent and lagging economic indicators:

How about forward-looking indicators?  We find that year-over-year growth in ECRI’s Weekly Leading Index (WLI) remains in a cyclical downturn . . .  and, as of early March, is near its worst reading since July 2009.  Close observers of this index might be understandably surprised by this persistent weakness, since the WLI’s smoothed annualized growth rate, which is much better known, has turned decidedly less negative in recent months.

Unlike the partisan political rhetoric about the economy, prognostication expressed by economists can be a bit more subtle.  In fact, many of the recent, upbeat commentaries have quite restrained and cautious.  Consider this piece from The Economist:

A year ago total bank loans were shrinking.  Now they are growing.  Loans to consumers have risen by 5% in the past year, which has accompanied healthy gains in car sales (see chart).  Mortgage lending was still contracting as of late 2011 but although house prices are still edging lower both sales and construction are rising.

*   *   *

At present just four states are reporting mid-year budget gaps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; this time last year, 15 did; the year before that, 36. State and local employment, which declined by 655,000 between August 2008 and last December – a fall of 3.3% – has actually edged up since.

*   *   *

Manufacturing employment, which declined almost continuously from 1998 through 2009, has since risen by nearly 4%, and the average length of time factories work is as high as at any time since 1945.  Since the end of the recession exports have risen by 39%, much faster than overall GDP.  Neither is as impressive as it sounds:  manufacturing employment remains a smaller share of the private workforce than in 2007, and imports have recently grown even faster than exports as global growth has faltered and the dollar has climbed.  Trade, which was a contributor to economic growth in the first years of recovery, has lately been a drag.

But economic recovery doesn’t have to wait for all of America’s imbalances to be corrected.  It only needs the process to advance far enough for the normal cyclical forces of employment, income and spending to take hold.  And though their grip may be tenuous, and a shock might yet dislodge it, it now seems that, at last, they have.

A great deal of enthusiastic commentary was published in reaction to the results from the recent round of bank stress tests, released by the Federal Reserve.  The stress test results revealed that 15 of the 19 banks tested could survive a stress scenario which included a peak unemployment rate of 13 percent, a 50 percent drop in equity prices, and a 21 percent decline in housing prices.  Time magazine published an important article on the Fed’s stress test results.  It was written by a gentleman named Christopher Matthews, who used to write for Forbes and the Financial Times.  (He is a bit younger than the host of Hardball.)  In a surprising departure from traditional, “mainstream media propaganda”, Mr. Matthews demonstrated a unique ability to look “behind the curtain” to give his readers a better idea of where we are now:

Christopher Whalen, a bank analyst and frequent critic of the big banks, penned an article in ZeroHedge questioning the assumptions, both by the Fed and the banks themselves, that went into the tests.  It’s well known that housing remains a thorn in the side of the big banks, and depressed real estate prices are the biggest risk to bank balance sheets.  The banks are making their own assumptions, however, with regards to the value of their real estate holdings, and Whalen is dubious of what the banks are reporting on their balance sheets. The Fed, he says, is happy to go along with this massaging of the data. He writes,

“The Fed does not want to believe that there is a problem with real estate. As my friend Tom Day wrote for PRMIA’s DC chapter yesterday:  ‘It remains hard to believe, on the face of it, that many of the more damaged balance sheets could, in fact, withstand another financial tsunami of the magnitude we have recenlty experienced and, to a large extent, continue to grapple with.’ ”

Even those that are more credulous are taking exception to the Fed’s decision to allow the banks to increase dividends and stock buybacks.  The Bloomberg editorial board wrote an opinion yesterday criticizing this decision:

 “Good as the stress tests were, they don’t mean the U.S. banking system is out of the woods.  Three major banks – Ally Financial Inc., Citigroup Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc. – didn’t pass, and investors still don’t have much faith in the reported capital levels of many of the rest.  If the Fed wants the positive results of the stress tests to last, it should err on the side of caution in approving banks’ plans to pay dividends and buy back shares – moves that benefit shareholders but also deplete capital.”

So there’s still plenty for skeptics to read into Tuesday’s report.  For those who want to doubt the veracity of the banks’ bookkeeping, you can look to Whalen’s report.  For those who like to question the Fed’s decision making, Bloomberg’s argument is as good as any.  But at the same time, we all know from experience that things could be much worse, and Tuesday’s announcement appears to be another in a string of recent good news that, unfortunately, comes packaged with a few caveats.  When all is said and done, this most recent test may turn out to be another small, “I think I can” from the little recovery that could.

When mainstream publications such as Time and Bloomberg News present reasoned analysis about the economy, it should serve as reminder to political bloviators that the only audience for the partisan rhetoric consists of “low-information voters”.  The old paradigm – based on campaign funding payola from lobbyists combined with support from low-information voters – is being challenged by what Marshall McLuhan called “the electronic information environment”.  Let’s hope that sane economic policy prevails.


 

Goldman Sachs Remains in the Spotlight

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Goldman Sachs has become a magnet for bad publicity.  Last week, I wrote a piece entitled, “Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs”.  On March 14, Greg Smith (a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa) summed-up his disgust with the firm’s devolution by writing “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” for The New York Times.  Among the most-frequently quoted reasons for Smith’s departure was this statement:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.  Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

In the wake of Greg Smith’s very public resignation from Goldman Sachs, many commentators have begun to speculate that Goldman’s bad behavior may have passed a tipping point.  The potential consequences have become a popular subject for speculation.  The end of Lloyd Blankfein’s reign as CEO has been the most frequently-expressed prediction.  Peter Cohan of Forbes raised the possibility that Goldman’s clients might just decide to take their business elsewhere:

Until a wave of talented people leave Goldman and go work for some other bank, many clients will stick with Goldman and hope for the best.  That’s why the biggest threat to Goldman’s survival is that Smith’s departure – and the reasons he publicized so nicely in his Times op-ed – leads to a wider talent exodus.

After all, that loss of talent could erode Goldman’s ability to hold onto clients. And that could give Goldman clients a better alternative.  So when Goldman’s board replaces Blankfein, it should appoint a leader who will restore the luster to Goldman’s traditional values.

Goldman’s errant fiduciary behavior became a popular topic in July of 2009, when the Zero Hedge website focused on Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading, which raised suspicions that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  Zero Hedge brought our attention to Goldman’s “GS360” portal.  GS360 included a disclaimer which could have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.  One week later, Matt Taibbi wrote his groundbreaking, tour de force for Rolling Stone about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis.  From that point onward, the “vampire squid” and its predatory business model became popular subjects for advocates of financial reform.

Despite all of the hand-wringing about Goldman’s controversial antics – especially after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, no effective remedial actions for cleaning-up Wall Street were on the horizon.  The Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation had become a worthless farce.

Exactly two years ago, publication of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing causes of the Lehman Brothers collapse, created shockwaves which were limited to the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media were not giving that story very much traction.  On March 15 of 2010, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Ryan Chittum, decrying the lack of mainstream media attention given to the Lehman scandal.  This shining example of Wall Street malefaction should have been an influential factor toward making the financial reform bill significantly more effective than the worthless sham it became.

Greg Smith’s resignation from Goldman Sachs could become the game-changing event, motivating Wall Street’s investment banks to finally change their ways.  Matt Taibbi seems to think so:

This always had to be the endgame for reforming Wall Street.  It was never going to happen by having the government sweep through and impose a wave of draconian new regulations, although a more vigorous enforcement of existing laws might have helped.  Nor could the Occupy protests or even a monster wave of civil lawsuits hope to really change the screw-your-clients, screw-everybody, grab-what-you-can culture of the modern financial services industry.

Real change was always going to have to come from within Wall Street itself, and the surest way for that to happen is for the managers of pension funds and union retirement funds and other institutional investors to see that the Goldmans of the world aren’t just arrogant sleazebags, they’re also not terribly good at managing your money.

*   *   *

These guys have lost the fear of going out of business, because they can’t go out of business.  After all, our government won’t let them.  Beyond the bailouts, they’re all subsisting daily on massive loads of free cash from the Fed.  No one can touch them, and sadly, most of the biggest institutional clients see getting clipped for a few points by Goldman or Chase as the cost of doing business.

The only way to break this cycle, since our government doesn’t seem to want to end its habit of financially supporting fraud-committing, repeat-offending, client-fleecing banks, is for these big “muppet” clients to start taking their business elsewhere.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be keeping our fingers crossed.


 

Running Out of Pixie Dust

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On September 18 of 2008, I pointed out that exactly one year earlier, Jon Markman of MSN.com noted that the Federal Reserve had been using “duct tape and pixie dust” to hold the economy together.  In fact, there were plenty of people who knew that our Titanic financial system was headed for an iceberg at full speed – long before September of 2008.  In October of 2006, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph wrote an article describing how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had re-activated the Plunge Protection Team (PPT):

Mr Paulson has asked the team to examine “systemic risk posed by hedge funds and derivatives, and the government’s ability to respond to a financial crisis”.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure we are thinking through all of the various risks and that we are being very careful here. Do we have enough liquidity in the system?” he said, fretting about the secrecy of the world’s 8,000 unregulated hedge funds with $1.3 trillion at their disposal.

Among the massive programs implemented in response to the financial crisis was the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, which began in November of 2008.  A second quantitative easing program (QE 2) was initiated in November of 2010.  The next program was “operation twist”.  Last week, Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal discussed the Fed’s plan for another bit of magic, described by economist James Hamilton as “sterilized quantitative easing”.  All of these efforts by the Fed have served no other purpose than to inflate stock prices.  This process was first exposed in an August, 2009 report by Precision Capital Management entitled, A Grand Unified Theory of Market ManipulationMore recently, on March 9, Charles Biderman of TrimTabs posted this (video) rant about the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to manipulate the stock market.

At this point, many economists are beginning to pose the question of whether the Federal Reserve has finally run out of “pixie dust”.  On February 23, I mentioned the outlook presented by economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) who provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  I included a discussion of economist John Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  Dr. Hussman admitted that there might still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

In December of 2010, Dr. Hussman wrote a piece, providing “An Updated Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest ”, in which he provided us with five warning signs:

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27%

On March 10, Randall Forsyth wrote an article for Barron’s, in which he basically concurred with Dr. Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman expressed a bit of umbrage about Randall Forsyth’s remark that Hussman “missed out” on the stock market rally which began in March of 2009:

As of last week, the market continued to reflect a set of conditions that have characterized a wicked subset of historical instances, comprising a Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest .  Barron’s ran a piece over the weekend that reviewed our case.  It’s interesting to me that among the predictable objections (mostly related to our flat post-2009 performance, but overlooking the 2000-2009 record), none addressed the simple fact that the prior instances of this condition have invariably turned out terribly.  It seems to me that before entirely disregarding evidence that is as rare as it is ominous, you have to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?

*   *   *

Investors Intelligence notes that corporate insiders are now selling shares at levels associated with “near panic action.”  Since corporate insiders typically receive stock as part of their compensation, it is normal for insiders to sell about 2 shares on the open market for every share they purchase outright.  Recently, however, insider sales have been running at a pace of more than 8-to-1.

*   *   *

While investors and the economic consensus has largely abandoned any concern about a fresh economic downturn, we remain uncomfortable with the divergence between reliable leading measures – which are still actually deteriorating – and more upbeat coincident/lagging measures on which public optimism appears to be based.

Nevertheless, Randall Forsyth’s article was actually supportive of Hussman’s opinion that, given the current economic conditions, discretion should mandate a more risk-averse investment strategy.  The concluding statement from the Barron’s piece exemplified such support:

With the Standard & Poor’s 500 up 24% from the October lows, it may be a good time to take some chips off the table.

Beyond that, Mr. Forsyth explained how the outlook expressed by Walter J. Zimmermann concurred with John Hussman’s expectations for a stock market swoon:

Walter J. Zimmermann Jr., who heads technical analysis for United-ICAP, a technical advisory firm, puts it more succinctly:  “A perfect financial storm is looming.”

*   *   *

THERE ARE AMPLE FUNDAMENTALS to knock the market down, including the well-advertised surge in gasoline prices, which Zimmermann calculates absorbed the discretionary spending power for half of America.  And the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program “is the gift that keeps on giving…if you like fear-inflated energy prices,” he wrote in the client letter.

At the same time, “the euro-zone response to their deflationary debt trap continues to be further loans to the hopelessly indebted, in return for crushing austerity programs.

So, evidently, not content with another mere recession, euro-zone leaders are inadvertently shooting for another depression.  They may well succeed.”

The euro zone is (or was, he stresses) the world’s largest economy, and a buyer of 22% of U.S. exports, which puts the domestic economy at risk, he adds.

Given the fact that the Federal Reserve has already expended the “heavy artillery” in its arsenal, it seems unlikely that the remaining bit of pixie dust in Ben Bernanke’s pocket – “sterilized quantitative easing” – will be of any use in the Fed’s never-ending efforts to inflate stock prices.


 

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Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs

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My last posting focused on the widely-publicized research conducted by Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on a rather timely subject.  Their article, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The following excerpt from the abstract of their paper provides the general theme of what their efforts revealed:

.   .   .  investigation revealed upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.

I began my discussion of that paper by looking back at a Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  The essay was written last January by James Q. Wilson (who passed away on March 2).  On March 4, William K. Black took a deeper look at the legacy of James Q. Wilson, which provided a better understanding of why Wilson would champion the “Don’t blame the rich” rationale.  As Bill Black pointed out, Wilson was a political scientist, known best for his theory called “broken windows” – a metaphor based on a vacant building with a few broken windows, which quickly has all of its windows broken because petty criminals feel emboldened to damage a building so neglected by its owners.  Bill Black emphasized that Wilson was exclusively preoccupied with minor, “blue collar” crimes.  Black noted that in a book entitled, Thinking About Crime, Wilson expressed tolerance for “some forms of civic corruption” while presenting an argument that criminology “should focus overwhelmingly on low-status blue collar criminals”.  Bill Black went on to explain how Wilson’s blindness to the relevance of the “broken windows” concept, as it related to “white collar” crime, resulted in a missed opportunity to attenuate the criminogenic milieu which led to the 2008 financial crisis:

Wilson emphasized that it was the willingness of society to tolerate relatively minor blue collar crimes that led to social disintegration and epidemics of severe blue collar crimes, but he engaged in the same willingness to tolerate and excuse less severe white collar crimes.  He predicted in his work on “broken windows” that tolerating widespread smaller crimes would lead to epidemic levels of larger crimes because it undermined community and social restraints.  The epidemics of elite white collar crime that have driven our recurrent, intensifying financial crises have proven this point.  Similarly, corruption that is excused and tolerated by elites is unlikely to remain at the level of “a few deals.”  Corruption is likely to spread in incidence and severity precisely because it undermines community and the rule of law and it is likely to grow more pervasive and harmful the more we “tolera[te]” it.

*   *   *

Taking Wilson’s “broken windows” reasoning seriously in the elite white collar crime context would require us to take a series of prophylactic measures to restore integrity and strengthen peer pressures against misconduct.  Indeed, we have implicitly tested the applicability of “broken windows” reasoning in that context by adopting policies that acted directly contrary to Wilson’s reasoning.  We have adopted executive and professional compensation systems that are exceptionally criminogenic.

*   *   *

Fiduciary duties are critical means of preventing broken windows from occurring and making it likely that any broken windows in corporate governance will soon be remedied, yet we have steadily weakened fiduciary duties.  For example, Delaware now allows the elimination of the fiduciary duty of care as long as the shareholders approve.  Court decisions have increasingly weakened the fiduciary duties of loyalty and care.  The Chamber of Commerce’s most recent priorities have been to weaken Sarbanes-Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  We have made it exceptionally difficult for shareholders who are victims of securities fraud to bring civil suits against the officers and entities that led or aided and abetted the securities fraud.

*   *   *

In the elite white collar crime context we have been following the opposite strategy of that recommended under “broken windows” theory.  We have been breaking windows. We have excused those who break the windows.  Indeed, we have praised them and their misconduct.  The problem with allowing broken windows is far greater in the elite white collar crime context than the blue collar crime context.

To find a “poster child” example for the type of errant fiduciary behavior which owes its existence to Wilson’s misapplication of the “broken windows” doctrine, one need look no further than Matt Taibbi’s favorite “vampire squid”:  Goldman Sachs.  One would think that after Taibbi’s groundbreaking, 2009 tour de force about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis . . .  and after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, the firm would at least try to keep a lower profile these days.  Naaaaw!

Goldman Sachs has now found itself in the crosshairs of a man, formerly accused of carrying water for the firm – Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Sorkin’s March 5 DealBook article for The New York Times upbraided Goldman for its flagrant conflict of interest in a deal where the firm served as an adviser to an oil (and natural gas) pipeline company, El Paso, which was being sold to Houston-based Kinder Morgan for $21.1 billion.  Goldman owned a 19.1 percent stake in Kinder Morgan at the time.  Andrew Ross Sorkin quoted from the script which Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein read to El Paso’s CEO, Douglas Foshee, wherein Blankfein confirmed that Foshee was aware of Goldman’s investment in Kinder Morgan.  It was refreshing to see a bit of righteous indignation in Sorkin’s discussion of the dirty details behind this transaction:

When the deal was announced, buried at the end of the news release was a list of Wall Street banks that had advised on the deal, including Goldman Sachs.  Goldman received a $20 million fee for playing matchmaker for El Paso.  The fee, of course, was not disclosed, nor was the Kinder Morgan stake owned by Goldman Sachs’s private equity arm, worth some $4 billion.  Nor did the release disclose that the Goldman banker who advised El Paso to accept Kinder Morgan’s bid owned $340,000 worth of Kinder Morgan stock.

Now, however, a court ruling in a shareholder lawsuit has laid bare the truth:  Goldman was on every conceivable side of the deal.  As a result, El Paso may have unwittingly sold itself far too cheaply.  Mr. Blankfein may have said he was “very sensitive to the appearance of conflict,” but the judge’s order ruling “reluctantly” against a motion to block the merger made it clear that Goldman’s conflicts went far beyond mere appearances.

Here’s just one example:  In an effort to help mitigate its clear conflict, Goldman Sachs recommended that El Paso hire an additional adviser so that El Paso would be able to say that it had received completely impartial advice.  Goldman did not say it would step down, and lose its fee, it simply suggested that El Paso hire one more bank – in this case, Morgan Stanley.

After explaining that Goldman included a provision in the deal that Morgan Stanley would get paid only if El Paso agreed to the sale to Kinder Morgan, Sorkin expressed this reaction:

Goldman’s brazenness in this deal is nothing short of breathtaking.

Goldman’s conflict of interest in the El Paso deal was also the subject of an article by Matthew Philips of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  Mr. Philips reminded us of whom we have to thank for “helping Greece dupe regulators by disguising billions of dollars’ worth of sovereign debt”:

New details have also emerged about Goldman’s role in helping Greece hide its debt so it could qualify for membership in the European Union.  In a Bloomberg News story out this week, Greek officials talk about how they didn’t truly understand the complex swaps contracts they were buying from Goldman bankers from 2001 to 2005, and that each time Goldman restructured the deal, things got worse for Greece.

The story reads like a cautionary tale of a homeowner who keeps returning to the same contractor to repair the damage done by the previous fix-it job.  At one point, Goldman prohibited Greece’s debt manager, Christoforos Sardelis, from seeking outside price quotes on the complicated derivatives Goldman was selling to Greece.

*   *   *

Yet Goldman’s sullied reputation doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting its business.  In fact, Goldman is outpacing its Wall Street competition recently in key areas of business.  In 2011, Goldman was the top adviser for both global M&A and equity IPOs.  A Bloomberg survey of traders, investors, and analysts last May showed that while 54 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Goldman, 78 percent believed that allegations it duped clients and misled Congress would have no material effect on its business.

In other words:  Goldman Sachs keeps breaking windows and nobody cares.  Thanks for nothing, James Q. Wilson!


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Scientists Bust the Top One Percent

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Ever since the Occupy Wall Street movement began last fall, we have been hearing the incessant mantra of:  Don’t blame the rich for wealth inequality.  In fact, Herman Cain’s futile bid for the Presidency was based (in part) on that very theme.  Last January, James Q. Wilson (who passed away on Friday) wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  Paul Buchheit of the Common Dreams blog rebutted Wilson’s essay with this posting:  “So say the rich:  ‘Don’t blame us for having all the money!’ ”.  How often have you read and heard arguments from apologists for the Wall Street banksters, upbraiding those who dared speak ill of those sanctified “job creators” within the top one percent of America’s economic strata?

Finally, a group of scientists has intervened by conducting some research about the ethics of those at the top of America’s socioeconomic food chain.  Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on this subject.  Their paper, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Here is the abstract:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.  In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals.  In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.  Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

The impact and the timing of this article, with respect to the current debate over income inequality, have resulted in quite a bit of interesting commentary.  I enjoyed the perspective of Peter Dorman at the Econospeak blog:

The tone of the first wave of commentary, as far as I can tell, is that we knew it all along – rich people are nasty.  I would like to put in a word, however, for the other direction of causality, that dishonesty and putting one’s own interests ahead of others are conducive to wealth.

*   *   *

The reason I bring this up is because there is a constant background murmur in our society that says that greater wealth has to be a reward for more talent, more effort or more contribution to society.

Most of the commentary written about the PNAS article has been relatively non-partisan.  Two-day access for reading the article on-line will cost you ten bucks.  For those of us who can’t afford that (as well as for those who can afford it – but are too greedy to pay for anything) I have assembled a number of excerpts from articles written by those who actually read the entire scientific paper.  The following passages will provide you with some interesting details about the research conducted by this group.

Christopher Shea of The Wall Street Journal gave us a brief peek at some of the specific findings of the studies conducted by this team.

It went so far as to show that higher-class people will literally take candy from the mouths of children.

An excerpt quoted by Shea illustrated how the group expanded on an observation made by French sociologist Émile Durkheim:

 “From the top to the bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused,” Durkheim famously wrote.  Although greed may indeed be a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives, we argue that greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata.

Brandon Keim of Wired offered us more research data from the article, while focusing on the observations of team member Paul Piff, a Berkeley psychologist:

“This work is important because it suggests that people often act unethically not because they are desperate and in the dumps, but because they feel entitled and want to get ahead,” said evolutionary psychologist and consumer researcher Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the work.  “I am especially impressed that the findings are consistent across seven different studies with varied methodologies.  This work is not just good science, but it is shows deeper insight into the reasons why people lie, cheat, and steal.”

According to Piff, unethical behavior in the study was driven both by greed, which makes people less empathic, and the nature of wealth in a highly stratified society.  It insulates people from the consequences of their actions, reduces their need for social connections and fuels feelings of entitlement, all of which become self-reinforcing cultural norms.

“When pursuit of self-interest is allowed to run unchecked, it can lead to socially pernicious outcomes,” said Piff, who noted that the findings are not politically partisan.  “The same rules apply to liberals and conservatives.  We always control for political persuasion,” he said.

For Thomas B. Edsall of The New York Times, the research performed by this group helped explain the rationale behind a bit of Republican campaign strategy:

Republicans recognize the political usefulness of objectification, capitalizing on “compassion fatigue,” or the exhaustion of empathy, among large swathes of the electorate who are already stressed by the economic collapse of 2008, high levels of unemployment, an epidemic of foreclosures, stagnant wages and a hyper-competitive business arena.

Compassion fatigue was fully evident in Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC denouncing a federal plan to prop up “losers’ mortgages” at taxpayer expense, a rant that helped spark the formation of the Tea Party.  Republican debates provided further evidence of compassion fatigue when audiences cheered the record-setting use of the death penalty in Texas and applauded the prospect of a gravely ill pauper who, unable to pay medical fees, was allowed to die.

Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica reported on some of the juicy details from a few experiments.  When reading about my favorite experiment, keep in mind that the term “SES” refers to socioeconomic status.

Study number four involved participants rating themselves on the SES scale to heighten their perception of status; they were then answered a number of questions relating to unethical behavior.  At the end of the experiment, they were presented with a jar of individually wrapped candy and told that, although it was for children in a nearby lab, they could take some if they wanted.  At this point you might be able to guess what the results were.  High SES participants took more candy.

Gitlin concluded his review of the paper with this thought:

The researchers argue that “the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing.”  However, they point out that their findings aren’t absolute, and that philanthropic efforts such as those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet buck the observed trend, as does research which has shown a relationship between poverty and violent crime.

Meanwhile, the debate over economic inequality continues to rage on through the 2012 election cycle.  It will be interesting to observe whether this scientific report is exploited to bolster the argument that most of the one-percenters suffer from a character flaw, which not only got them where they are today – but which is shared by their kleptocratic comrades, who have facilitated a system of legalized predation.


 

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Israel for Dummies

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I don’t pretend to be an expert on Middle East politics.  I usually rely on the perspective of Steve Clemons at The Washington Note, who provides candid, unvarnished commentary on the complicated issues in that region.  Since December of 2008, I have been following the accomplishments of Jeremy Ben-Ami, the Executive Director of J Street, which he describes as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement”.

Concern over the threat to Israel from Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been a hot topic during this election year.  Nevertheless, on February 27, Andrew Jones wrote a piece for The Raw Story, which included some disclosures published by Wikileaks concerning Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts:

Growing concerns over Iran’s nuclear facilities may prove to be all for naught.  Officials from the global intelligence company Stratfor allegedly discussed that Israel may have already destroyed the Iranian nuclear facility, according to one of the emails released by Wikileaks Monday.

In one of the over five million emails leaked, the conversation centered on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak praising the news of deadly munitions blasts at a base of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards.

“I think this is a diversion.  The Israelis already destroyed all the Iranian nuclear infrastructure on the ground weeks ago,” one intelligence official wrote in an email dated November 14, 2011. “The current ‘let’s bomb Iran’ campaign was ordered by the EU leaders to divert the public attention from their at home financial problems.  It plays also well for the US since Pakistan, Russia and N. Korea are mentioned in the report. ”

This scenario makes sense.  Iran would not likely admit to having been humiliated by Israel .  Beyond that, the European Union plutocrats would enjoy nothing more than a decent sideshow to distract attention from their economic austerity fiasco.

For years, I have been waiting for someone to write a book called Israel for Dummies.  Too many American teevee pundits seem completely ignorant about Israel’s internal political strife and its impact on the prospects for peace with the Palestinians.  It appears as though someone has finally written that book.  I recently came across a great piece written by Noah Millman for The American Conservative.  Mr. Millman wrote a review of a new book entitled, The Unmasking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg.  As Millman explains, the book takes us back to the early days of Israel, with David Ben-Gurion at the helm, bringing us to the present-day, never-ending conflict with the Palestinians.  Here are some highlights from Noah Millman’s book review:

Rather, the thrust of the book, as the title states, is to demonstrate that the series of decisions made during and after the 1967 War that resulted in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza set in motion a process that has progressively “unmade” the State of Israel.  Indeed, the progressive expansion of the settlement enterprise has so eroded the foundations of the signature achievement of political Zionism – Israel as we now know it – that not merely a “Jewish democratic state” but the state as such is now imperiled.

*   *   *

Since 1967, Gorenberg relates, the settlement enterprise has undermined the Israeli state top to bottom.  It has fostered secrecy and corruption in government.

*   *   *

Again the story is familiar.  Less so is the framing. Gorenberg, though he is outraged by the plight of the Palestinians, is not really writing about that plight.  Nor is he writing from an anti-Zionist perspective.  Rather, he is writing from a deeply Zionist point of view.  Zionism, we tend to forget, was not a self-defense movement.  It was a nationalist movement. Nationalism tells a people a story about what it means to be free – that being free means being part of a self-conscious, self-governing, sovereign, and independent collective.  Losing consciousness of one’s national group, being governed by other groups, failing to achieve independence and sovereignty on par with other nations – these are signs of unfreedom.  Of immaturity. The Jews before Zionism were, from the perspective of this narrative, either an exceptionally immature nation or not a nation at all.  The goal of Zionism was not simply – or even primarily – to provide for a “safe haven” for Jews fleeing persecution by the Czar or the Nazis.  The goal was the spiritual rejuvenation of the Jewish people by molding them into a nation like other nations and achieving independent statehood.

This is a narrative frame that, in broad strokes, Gorenberg accepts, which is why he is properly seen as a Zionist.  Indeed, the whole argument of the book is that by holding onto and settling the territories captured in 1967, Israel has reverted to a mode of existence that Zionism was supposed to help the Jews grow out of. By undermining the authority of the state, the settlement enterprise has revived modes of being and of argument that, from Gorenberg’s perspective, the Jewish people should have grown out of when they acquired the power and responsibility of a state. Indeed, that was the whole point, from a moral perspective, of acquiring state power in the first place.  The settlement enterprise doesn’t just undermine the moral case for Israel because it’s an injustice (plenty of states have perpetrated injustices – indeed, far worse injustices – without undermining the case for statehood as such) but because it is evidence that Zionism failed in what was arguably its primary objective.

As an aside:  Be sure to read the Comment stream following Millman’s piece.  It included some astute remarks and a good debate.

One American’s experience in attempting to get a better understanding of the Israeli – Palestinian conflict was chronicled on the Al Jazeera website.  Punk rock icon, Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys discussed his decision to cancel a show he was scheduled to perform at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv with his new band (Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine).  His bandmates had decided to boycott Israel in order to support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movementWikipedia lists this explanation of the BDS movement’s three main goals:

  1. Freeing all Palestinian territories from Israeli influence since 1967 and dismantling the Israeli West Bank barrier;
  2. Acting towards the rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel; and
  3. Promoting the interests of Arab Palestinian refugees in reference to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948.

Jello Biafra’s account of what followed his decision to cancel the Tel Aviv gig made for some interesting reading:

So with the rollercoaster still in my stomach and my head, I flew solo to Israel instead.  The mission:  to check things out myself and hopefully at least get closer to some kind of conclusion on whether artists boycotting Israel, especially me, was really the best way to help the Palestinian people.

*   *   *

I also got an invitation from a self-proclaimed fan to “come meet the Israeli right” and see the settlements through their eyes, complete with a wine-tasting party.

Many people I met on my trip to Israel feel that the boycott has damaged the Israeli opposition more than it has anyone else and “helped silence the peace camp in Israel”.  A veteran journalist I met later told me, “the best way to contribute to peace is to try and work to understand both sides” and that he felt that boycotts strengthen extremists by keeping people apart.

*   *   *

One of the few things both Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree on is that one of the main obstacles to peace these days is the settlers.

Today the illegal settlements are completely out of control, with 300,000 settlers planted across the Green Line in the West Bank and another 200,000 beyond the Green Line in East Jerusalem. Borders are creatively moved and enforced by the infamous wall, started by the ideas of Yitzhak Rabin and greatly expanded by Ariel Sharon.  It’s a black eye on the face of Israel’s reputation today, considered so even among many of Israel’s citizens and supporters.

Some people told me that if the wall had been built along the Green Line, it might have actually worked.  But Sharon then used it as a land grab, creatively and maniacally routing it through the middle of Palestinian towns, Palestinian farmland and across Palestinian roads, in a deliberate attempt to make the West Bank such a splattered Swiss-cheese hodgepodge of impassable walls and checkpoints that a free Palestinian state could never get off the ground.

Any fantasy that Palestinians could one day be broken down to stay on “their side” of the wall and live happily ever after is ridiculous.  It flies in the face of all human instinct and human rights. It is never going to happen.  Like the Berlin Wall, it is destined to fall sooner rather than later.

*   *   *

A boycott of products made in settlements has begun inside Israel.  There is also a growing boycott by artists refusing to cross the Green Line and perform for the settlers.  A fancy venue has opened in one of the largest settlements in Ariel.  Many artists refuse to perform there.

*   *   *

Yet bringing down this regime by boycott may be a much higher mountain to climb than the boycott of South Africa.  The 1985 musician boycott of Sun City (a posh, government-owned golf resort and casino in South Africa) was just a promotional tool for the financial boycott, where banks, universities and corporations caved into pressure to pull their investments out of South Africa and broke the back of the white apartheid regime.

*   *   *

I am not saying the same tactics that brought down apartheid South Africa can’t be done.  I am just saying that there are different and heavier obstacles this time and people need to be ready for them.

South Africa never had anything like the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobby, which is now considered more of a lobby for Likud than for the Israeli people.  Nevertheless, they have a stranglehold over almost every member of Congress of both parties, using Joe McCarthy-type tactics to smear anyone they don’t like as anti-Jewish – and get them voted out of office.

*   *   *

I will not perform in Israel unless it is a pro-human rights, anti-occupation event that does not violate the spirit of the boycott.  Each artist must decide this for themselves. I am staying away for now, but am also really creeped out by the attitudes of some of the boycott hardliners, and hope someday to find a way to contribute something positive here.  I will not march or sign on with anyone who is more interested in making threats than making friends.

As for the Arab Spring, I cross my fingers on one hand and bite my nails with the other.

I have a lot to learn and a long way to go.

We all have a lot to learn.  Jello Biafra’s humility is refreshing.  If only our politicians were so humble  .  .  .


 

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