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Thinking Clearly During An Election Year

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The non-stop bombardment of inane, partisan yammering which assaults us during an election year, makes it even more refreshing when a level-headed, clear thinker catches our attention.  One popular subject of debate during the current election cycle has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the 2009 stimulus bill).  In stark contrast with the propaganda you have been hearing about the 2009 stimulus (from both political parties), a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? brought us a rare, objective analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.

Matt Steinglass of The Economist recently wrote a great essay on the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate, which included a discussion of Mike Grabell’s new book:

The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written:  a detailed investigation of what does and doesn’t work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy.  But that wasn’t the debate we had.  Instead we had a debate about the very concept of whether the government ought to spend money counter-cyclically during a recession in order to keep the economy from collapsing, or whether it should tighten its belt along with consumers and businesses in order to generate confidence in the financial markets and allow markets to clear.  We had a debate about whether governments should respond to recessions with deficit spending or austerity.

The ProPublica website gave us a peek at Mike Grabell’s book by publishing a passage concerning how the stimulus helped America maintain its status as a competitor in the electric car industry.  Nevertheless, America’s failure to support the new technology with the same zeal as its Asian competitors could push domestic manufacturers completely out of the market:

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015.  Even many in the industry say the target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run.  South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade.

As Matt Steinglass concluded in his essay for The Economist, current economic circumstances (as well as the changed opinions of economists John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson) indicate that the proponents of economic stimulus have won the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate:

The 2010 elections took place at a moment when people seemed to have lost faith in Keynesianism.  The 2012 elections are taking place at a moment when people have lost faith in expansionary austerity.

Although the oil industry has done a successful job of convincing the public that jobs will be lost if the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, big oil has done a better job of distracting the public from understanding how many jobs will be lost if America fails to earn a niche in the electric vehicle market.

The politicization of the debate over how to address the ongoing unemployment crisis was the subject of a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian lamented that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

The longer that corrective measures are delayed, the harder the task at hand will be and the greater the eventual costs to society.

*   *   *

In fact, our current unemployment crisis is a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations.

Mr. El-Erian noted that there is a faction – among the opposing forces in the debate over how to address unemployment – seeking a “killer app” which would effectuate dramatic and immediate progress.  He explained why those people aren’t being realistic:

There is no killer app.  Instead, Congress and the administration need to move simultaneously on three fronts that incorporate multiple measures:  those that address the immediate impediments to job creation, including a better mix of demand stimulus and medium-term fiscal reform involving both federal spending and revenue, as well as stronger remedies for housing and housing finance; those that deal with the longer-term enablers of productive employment, such as education, retraining and retooling; and those that strengthen the social safety nets to appropriately protect citizens in the interim.

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

In other words, while the election year lunacy continues, the unemployment crisis continues to act as “a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations”.  Worse yet, the expectation that our political leaders could “come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge” seems nearly as unrealistic as waiting for that “killer app”.  This is yet another reason why Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 election year.


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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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Bad Report Card Haunts Democrats At Mid-Terms

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It doesn’t take much time or effort to find out how or why the Democrats have alienated so many independent voters (and so much of their own base) during the 2010 election cycle.  You don’t need to look to the Fox News or Andrew Breitbart for an explanation.   Reading through the opinion pages of The New York Times should provide you with a good understanding of what the Democrats have been doing wrong.

One common theme voiced by many critics of the Obama administration has been its lack of interest in prosecuting those responsible for causing the financial crisis.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to initiate any criminal proceedings against such noteworthy individuals as Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo or Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers.  On October 23, Frank Rich of The New York Times mentioned both of those individuals while lamenting the administration’s failure to prosecute the “financial crimes that devastated the nation”:

The Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene.   It’s shy about calling a fraud a fraud when it occurs in high finance.
*   *   *
Since Obama has neither aggressively pursued the crash’s con men nor compellingly explained how they gamed the system, he sometimes looks as if he’s fronting for the industry even if he’s not.

The special treatment afforded to the perpetrators of the frauds that helped create the financial crisis wasn’t the only gift to Wall Street from the Democratically-controlled White House, Senate and Congress.  The financial “reform” bill was so badly compromised (by the Administration and Senate Democrats, themselves) as it worked its way through the legislative process, that it is now commonly regarded as nothing more than a hoax.  Frank Rich finds it ironic that the voters are about to return power to “those who greased the skids” to facilitate the financial catastrophe:

We can blame much of this turn of events on the deep pockets of oil billionaires like the Koch brothers and on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which freed corporations to try to buy any election they choose.  But the Obama White House is hardly innocent.  Its failure to hold the bust’s malefactors accountable has helped turn what should have been a clear-cut choice on Nov. 2 into a blurry contest between the party of big corporations and the party of business as usual.

David Weidner of MarketWatch recently discussed the idea of appointing a special prosecutor to bring the Wall Street culprits to justice.  After acknowledging the often-used pushback argument made by those opposed to such a prosecutorial effort — that those cases are impossibly difficult to advance through the legal system — Weidner made this observation:

These cases may be difficult, but they’re not impossible.  And given the creation of a lawless marketplace where one economy-destroying decision can be made on top of another for short-term personal gains, something has to be done.

But nothing’s happening.  Maybe it’s because of the money Wall Street lavishes on Congress.  Perhaps it’s the close ties between the industry and the administration.   It could be, as Nouriel Roubini said in the new documentary “Inside Job,” investigators are “afraid” of what they will find.

A special prosecutor, in a bid to make a name for himself or herself, might be immune to such pressure.   It’s our best hope for outing the scoundrels and creating an industry where greed finally takes a backseat to the law.

Back at The New York Times, Charles Blow brought our attention to the recent rant by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless, who – despite his uselessness in the aftermath of the financial Ponzi-crisis – stands at the ready to prosecute marijuana smokers in the event that Proposition 19 becomes law in The Golden State.  One would think that the Obama administration might prefer that a large bloc of voters should remain stoned for as long as possible, so as to prevent those citizens from realizing what a lousy job their President is doing for them.  Worse yet, Charles Blow explained how the Democrats have been advancing the Clinton-era Byrne Formula Grant Program, as a vehicle for financing a war on pot smokers, over the objections of former President George W. Bush and conservative groups, who emphasized that the program “has proved to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources.”  Nevertheless, the Democrats were able to direct two billion dollars from the financial stimulus program to the so-called Byrne Grants.  Remember: that’s two billion dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – which was supposed to put people back to work and save the economy – misappropriated to the effort of putting pot smokers in jail.  I guess that the Obama Justice Department has to look like it’s doing something.

Another issue that has not escaped the public’s radar – despite the efforts of the Obama administration – is the never-ending catastrophe in the Gulf of Corexit, caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout.  Washington’s Blog recently featured an important posting, with links to several articles about this environmental disaster, which the administration wants you to forget about (at least until after the election).  The BP-sponsored, mainstream media seem more than happy with the claim of  “mission accomplished” voiced by Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft (the man in charge of the federal response) and his top science adviser, Steve Lehmann.   A review of any one of the articles linked at the Washington’s Blog posting will scare the hell out of you — just in time for Halloween (and Election Day).  Nevertheless the people who will get the worst haunting of Halloween 2010 will be the Democrats.  Unfortunately for us, most of them deserve it.


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Lack Of Stimulation

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September 9, 2010

You don’t have to look very far to find a rabid, hostile reaction to President Obama’s proposed $50 billion transportation infrastructure program.  After all – it’s an election year.  I was quite surprised when I read this paragraph from a BusinessWeek report about the proposal:

For companies that do the unglamorous work of pouring cement, crushing stones, and hauling earth, President Barack Obama’s $50 billion proposal outlined on Sept. 6 to rebuild U.S. roads, railways, and runways is welcome relief amid unrelenting economic gloom.  If approved by Congress (an uncertain proposition in an election year) Obama’s plan would pick up the slack when most of the highway stimulus funds under the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to be spent next year, says Mike Betts, an analyst with London-based Jefferies.

Stop and think about that for a moment.  The phrase I wish to bring to your attention is:

.  .  .   most of the highway stimulus funds under the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to be spent next year    .  .  .

The first question that came to mind was:  Why the hell wasn’t it spent last year?  We’ve been reading about how the effects of the “Obama stimulus bill” (a/k/a  the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) have already stopped boosting the economy.  How much more of that money has been sitting on the sidelines?  Beyond that, why didn’t the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provide more funding for infrastructure?

The proposed transportation infrastructure program will cost approximately the same as the B-2 Stealth Bomber program, which produced 21 bombers at an average cost of $2.1 billion per aircraft in 1997 dollars.

Since July of last year, I have been among those arguing that the $787 billion economic stimulus package was inadequate, after reading about a Bloomberg survey of economists, which supported that conclusion in February of 2009.  In early 2009, there was a greater sense of urgency about the state of the economy and a stronger political will to enact a more significant stimulus.  Unfortunately, President Obama was not up to the task of pushing a larger bill through.  As a result, the President is now making piecemeal stimulus efforts, such as the $50-billion infrastructure proposal.  The tragedy of not getting it right the first time seemed more unfortunate after I read a recent posting by Barry Ritholtz at his blog, The Big Picture.  Here is what Mr. Ritholtz had to say:

Yesterday on XM Sirius, we discussed Infrastructure.

One of the callers was a civil engineer who suggested we take a look at the US Infrastructure Report Card (infrastructurereportcard.org), which grades the US on a variety of factors.  The 2009 Grades include: Aviation (D), Bridges (C), Dams (D), Drinking Water (D-), Energy (D+), Hazardous Waste (D), Inland Waterways (D-), Levees (D-), Public Parks and Recreation (C-), Rail (C-), Roads(D-), Schools (D), Solid Waste (C+), Transit (D), and Wastewater (D-).

Overall, America’s Infrastructure GPA was graded a “D.”  To get to an “A” requires a 5 year infrastructure investment of $2.2 Trillion dollars.  Hence, you can understand if I am underwhelmed by the latest $50B proposal.

Each individual state is also graded;  NY’s is after the jump.

After reading about the Infrastructure Report Card, I couldn’t help but wonder how our economy would have benefited from a $2.2 trillion infrastructure program rather than the $850 billion stimulus program enacted in 2009.  Consider what economist Joseph Stiglitz had to say about how the global financial crisis was affecting Australia in August of 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.

There’s a right way of doing economic stimulus and a wrong way of implementing such a program.  Unfortunately, America did it the wrong way.





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