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More Dirty Laundry

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Will an Independent candidate please step into the 2012 Presidential campaign?

On November 6, 2012 a good number of citizens who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 will realize that they are faced with the choice of voting for either Black Romney or White Romney.  As a result, those former Obama supporters won’t bother to vote at all.  Barack Obama won’t be seen as a significantly dissimilar alternative to Romney.  The indiscernible difference between those candidates would not justify the effort of standing in line at the polls.

Voter disappointment with the President is now being overshadowed by the rising pile of dirty laundry he has accumulated during his tenure in the White House.  The burgeoning Solyndra scandal is being mishandled by the President himself.  You would think he had learned a lesson from Weinergate, to the effect that fallacious denials about scandal allegations can create more trouble for a politician than the scandal itself.  FactCheck.org recently caught Obama in a lie about the loan guarantee program exploited by Solyndra:

Obama referred to Solyndra’s loan at an Oct. 6 press conference as “a loan guarantee program that predates me.”  That’s not accurate. It’s true that the Energy Policy Act of 2005 created a loan guarantee program for clean-energy companies developing “innovative technologies.”  But Solyndra’s loan guarantee came under another program created by the president’s 2009 stimulus for companies developing “commercially available technologies.”

*   *   *

In a March 2009 press release announcing a $535 million loan guarantee for Solyndra, the Energy Department said:  “This loan guarantee will be supported through the President’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provides tens of billions of dollars in loan guarantee authority to build a new green energy economy.”  Damien LaVera, an Energy Department spokesman, confirmed that Solyndra’s funding came solely from section 1705.

That revelation is simply the first layer of frosting on a cake with some noxious ingredients baked into the recipe.  ABC News provided this report:

An elite Obama fundraiser hired to help oversee the administration’s energy loan program pushed and prodded career Department of Energy officials to move faster in approving a loan guarantee for Solyndra, even as his wife’s law firm was representing the California solar company, according to internal emails made public late Friday.

“How hard is this? What is he waiting for?” wrote Steven J. Spinner, a high-tech consultant and energy investor who raised at least $500,000 for the candidate before being appointed to a key job helping oversee the energy loan guarantee program.  “I have OVP [the Office of the Vice President] and WH [the White House] breathing down my neck on this.”

Many of the emails were written just days after Spinner accepted a three-page ethics agreement in which he pledged he would “not participate in any discussion regarding any application involving [his wife’s law firm] Wilson [Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati].”

*   *   *

Recovery Act records show Allison Spinner’s law firm, Wilson Sonsini, received $2.4 million in federal funds for legal fees related to the $535 million Energy Department loan guarantee to Solyndra.  That ethics agreement said his wife would forgo pay “earned as a result of its representation of applicants in programs within your official duties.”

Although many Obama apologists have characterized the Solyndra scandal a nothing more than a “Republican smear campaign”, Ryan Reilly of the non-Republican Talking Points Memo offered this analysis of the allegations:

Solyndra was raided by the FBI earlier this month.  The Government Accountability Office had raised concerns that the Energy Department agreed to back five companies — including Solyndra — with loans without properly assessing their risk of failure.  All this from a company that Obama described as a company with a “true engine of economic growth.”

And the details that are emerging from the investigators at the Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee are making things look worse for the administration.

Nine days before the administration formally announced the loan, a White House budget analyst wrote an email calling the deal “NOT ready for prime time,” according to documents given to ABC News by the House Energy and Commerce Committee investigators.

Despite the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protest, President Obama has seen fit to launch an assault on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was created after the Enron scandal.  Sarbanes-Oxley most notably assigned responsibility to corporate officers for the accuracy and validity of corporate financial reports and established criminal penalties for destruction or alteration of financial records, interference with investigations, as well as providing protection for whistle-blowers.  The Business Insider reports that President Obama is advancing the recommendations of his jobs council which call for attenuating the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations, in order to make it easier for small companies to go public, by way of initial public offerings (IPOs):

The jobs council, headed by GE CEO Jeff Immelt and including Sheryl Sandberg and Steve Case, found that the Sarbanes-Oxley was a key factor in reducing the number of IPOs smaller than $50 million from 80 percent of all IPOs in the 1990s to 20 percent in the 2000s.

Obama also said the “Spitzer Decree,” which bans investment banks from using banking revenues to pay for research and expert analysis of publicly-traded companies, deserves reconsideration as well.  The council said the rule shares the blame for the decline in IPOs among small companies.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism reacted to the news with this remark:

This is ridiculous.  Do you know what happens with small stocks?  Pump and dump (and I’ve seen this at closer range than I would like.  I had a former client get involved by having his private company merged into a public company controlled by small stock low lifes.  They ran it from $1 to about $12 twice, and then it went back to under $2 and stayed there).

We were reminded of Obama’s hypocrisy on the subject of financial reform by a fantastic article written by Suzanna Andrews for Vanity Fair, which detailed how Elizabeth Warren was thrown under the bus by Obama, who shocked his supporters with his refusal to nominate Warren as chair of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which she created).

Another disillusioned 2008 Obama supporter, Bill McKibben, wrote an essay for Tom’s Dispatch about how the President has sold out to Big Oil:

Here’s an example:  by year’s end the president has said he will make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.  The nation’s top climate scientists sent the administration a letter indicating that such a development would be disastrous for the climate.  NASA’s James Hansen, the government’s top climate researcher, said heavily tapping tar-sands oil, a particularly “dirty” form of fossil fuel, would mean “game over for the climate.” Ten of the president’s fellow recent Nobel Peace Prize laureates pointed out in a letter that blocking the prospective pipeline would offer him a real leadership moment, a “tremendous opportunity to begin transition away from our dependence on oil, coal, and gas.”

But every indication from this administration suggests that it is prepared to grant the necessary permission for a project that has the enthusiastic backing of the Chamber of Commerce, and in which the Koch Brothers have a “direct and substantial interest.”  And not just backing.  To use the words of a recent New York Times story, they are willing to “flout the intent of federal law” to get it done.  Check this out as well:  the State Department, at the recommendation of Keystone XL pipeline builder TransCanada, hired a second company to carry out the environmental review.  That company already considered itself a “major client” of TransCanada.  This is simply corrupt, potentially the biggest scandal of the Obama years.  And here’s the thing:  it’s a crime still in progress.  Watching the president do nothing to stop it is endlessly depressing.

We shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that Obama’s dirty laundry has a few oil stains.  The BIG surprise would be Obama’s reelection.


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The Wrong Playbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Workers in September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Rethinking The Stimulus

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February 22, 2010

On the anniversary of the stimulus law (a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — Public Law 111-5) there has been quite a bit of debate concerning the number of jobs actually created by the stimulus as opposed to the claims made by Democratic politicians.  For their part, the Democrats take pride in the fact that John Makin of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, recently published this statement at the AEI website:

Absent temporary fiscal stimulus and inventory rebuilding, which taken together added about 4 percentage points to U.S.growth, the economy would have contracted at about a 1 percent annual rate during the second half of 2009.

A few months ago, I had a discussion with an old friend and the subject of the stimulus came up.  My beefs about the stimulus were that it did not offer the necessary degree of immediate relief and that a good chunk of it should have gone directly into the hands of the taxpayers.

I recently read a blog posting by Keith Hennessey, the former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, which expressed some opinions similar to my own on what the stimulus should have offered.  Although Mr. Hennessey preferred the traditional panacea of tax cuts as the primary means for economic stimulus, he made a number of other important points.  With so much fear being expressed about the possibility of a “double-dip” recession, our government could find itself in the uncomfortable position of considering another stimulus bill.  If that day comes, we have all the more reason to look back at what was right and what was wrong with the 2009 stimulus.

Keith Hennessy began with this statement:

Unlike many critics of the stimulus law, I think that fiscal policy can increase short-term economic growth, especially when the economy is in a deep recession.  In other words, I think that fiscal stimulus is a valid concept.  This does not mean that I think that every increase in government spending, or every tax cut, (a) increases short-term economic growth or (b) is good policy.

At the end of his second paragraph, he got to the part that was music to my ears:

If the Administration had instead put $862 B directly into people’s hands, you would have seen more immediate spending and economic growth than we did, even if people had saved most of it.

In contrast, government spending is powerful but painfully slow.  If the government spends $1 on building a road, eventually that entire $1 will enter the economy and increase GDP growth.  Your bang-for-the-deficit-buck is extremely high.  The problem is that bang-for-the-buck doesn’t help us if that bang occurs two or three or four years from now.

*   *   *

I would instead prefer that people be allowed to spend and save the money how they best see fit.  My preferred path also has less waste and bureaucracy.

A bit later in the piece, Hennessey said some things that probably caused a good number of the CPAC conventioneers reach for the Tums:

I agree with the Administration that last year’s stimulus law increased economic growth above what it otherwise would have been.  I agree that employment is higher than it would have been without a stimulus.

Of course, Hennessey complained that “The law was poorly designed and inefficient” — in part because the money was funneled through federal and state bureaucracies — another valid point.  Then, he got to the important issue:

Given a decision last year to do a big fiscal stimulus, I would have preferred, in this order:

1.  putting all the money into a permanent reduction in income and capital taxes;

2.  putting all the money into a temporary reduction in income and capital taxes;

3.  putting all the money into transfer payments;

4.  what Congress and the President did.

Given the policy preferences of the President, his team’s big policy mistake last year was to let Congress turn a reasonable macroeconomic fiscal policy goal into a Congressional spending toga party.  Given his policy preferences, the President should have insisted that Congress put all the money into (2) and (3) above.  He would have had a bigger macro stimulus bang earlier.

In case you’re wondering what “transfer payments” are — you need to think in terms of “wealth transfer”.  In this case, it concerns situations where the government gives away money to people who aren’t rich.  A good example of this was the stimulus program that took place under President Bush.  Individuals with incomes of less than $75,000 received a $300 “stimulus check” and households with joint incomes under $150,000 got $600.

My own stimulus idea would involve a “tax rebate” program, wherein the taxpayers receive a number of $50 vouchers based on the amount of income tax they paid the previous year.  The recipients would then be instructed to go out and buy stuff with the vouchers.  So what if they spent it on imported merchandise?  The American retailers and shipping companies would still make money, finding it necessary to hire people.  The vouchers would display the person’s name and address.  In order to use the vouchers, identification would be needed, so as to prevent resale.  The maximum amount of cash change one could get back from a voucher-funded purchase would be $10.

Hopefully, we won’t need another stimulus program.  However, if we do, I suggest that the government simply give us vouchers and send us shopping.



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