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Sandy Politics

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Was Hurricane Sandy a Democrat?  Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney’s tormentor was a debate moderator named Candy.  This week, Romney’s nemesis is a storm named Sandy.  The latest blow to the Republican’s Presidential campaign came from an actual wind.  Precious news program time, normally devoted to the battle for the White House – which amounts to free infomercial time from the networks – is now being diverted to coverage of the storm’s havoc.  Worse yet, the Benghazi story has become “old news”, bumped back to oblivion.  As Romney’s surrogates complain that Obama cannot be trusted to work with Republicans, news coverage shows the President with Republican Chris Christie at his side so frequently that rest-home-bound geriatrics are remarking about the excessive weight gained by Joe Biden.  Despite the claim that government is the problem rather than the solution, many of Sandy’s victims are finding the opposite to be the case.  FEMA can no longer be described as a government extravagance.  If all that weren’t bad enough – global warming is back in the news  .  .  .  big time  .  .  .

What could likely be a lasting legacy from Sandy will have a bipartisan impact – a painful blow to Democrats and Republicans who remain dogmatically opposed to government-initiated fiscal stimulus programs.  Sandy is about to prove them wrong.  The massive infrastructure restoration efforts, which will be necessary to address Sandy’s damage, could end up providing the financial stimulus which Congress would never have approved if Sandy had not headed westbound.

Duncan Bowen Black has a PhD in Economics from Brown University.  His Eschaton blog presents the liberal perspective on more issues than those related to the economy.  Love him or hate him, his April 30 USA Today article is downright prescient.  Sandy will prove, once and for all, that Keynes was right.  Resistance is futile.  Consider his points:

To suggest that the response to the storm impact might improve the economy is not to suggest that the storm is somehow a good thing, but a quick mobilization of resources to complete necessary repairs could temporarily boost employment and improve business for companies producing and selling construction materials.  There would also be additional multiplier effects of this spending on the economy, as workers and business owners spend their increased wages and profits.

But this could be true even absent widespread storm damage.  Speeding up other infrastructure repair projects would also put people back to work.  For example, many cities have aging water systems that experience regular costly water main breaks.  These projects don’t need costly studies or lengthy environmental impact reports and could be implemented almost immediately. Buy materials, dig up the streets, replace the pipes, repair the streets and pay your workers.  They are truly shovel ready projects in need of funding.

No degree of Austerian opposition will be able to prevent the post-Sandy infrastructure restoration programs from being implemented.  Sandy is about to teach America an important lesson, which could motivate many politicians to repeat what Richard Nixon said in 1971:  “I am now a Keynesian in economics”.

Real-Time Fact Checking for Political Debates

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Note:  This posting was published before the second 2012 Presidential debate at Hoftsra University

After the Vice-Presidential debate, many of Team Obama’s surrogates were referring to both Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney as liars.  Obviously, most Republicans were upset by this.  What I found amusing about the entire dust-up was that at no time did anyone from Team Obama support their aspersions with a reference to a fact-checking website.  It would have been easy enough.  Directing people to a fact-checking website would have been even more helpful because the site would inform the reader that the candidate in question told a number of lies.  Upon visiting one of the fact-checking websites, Team Obama’s aversion to using such a site to support those nasty allegations becomes obvious:  there are a number of untrue statements from Obama and Biden which are also exposed.

The two most widely-used fact-checking websites are PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org.

The PolitiFact page concerning the Denver Obama – Romney debate can be found here.  The FactCheck analysis of that first Obama – Romney debate can be found here.

As for the Vice-Presidential debate, the PolitiFact page is here and the FactCheck Veep debate page is here.

After learning the truth about what was said during the debates, I immediately imagined a political debate in which three meters – similar to PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter – appear at the bottom of the screen.  The meters would provide readings from three independent fact-checking services.  When a candidate would finish making a factual assertion, the meters would indicate the degree of veracity for that statement.  Upon further consideration, it quickly became obvious that a delay of as much as twenty minutes might be necessary between the time of the statement and the broadcast.  If seven-second delays are used to censor obscene words, why not use a twenty-minute delay to expose lies?  If a twenty-second delay was used to avoid broadcast of a grizzly mishap during Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic skydive, why not use a twenty-minute delay to open a window to the truth?  If the networks can provide audience response meters to the candidates’ statements, they should be able to provide fact-checking readouts in real time.  It might be necessary to delay the broadcast version of the debate as much as twenty minutes later than “live”, and it could get bogged down by delays between questions so that the meter reading from one candidate’s previous statement would not remain on the screen while the opposing candidate would begin speaking in response to the next question. Nevertheless, it would be more interesting and the candidates would have no reason to resort to calling each other liars.

If such a debate format were actually suggested, it would be amusing to watch the responses to the proposal.  I would be willing to bet that all candidates and political parties would oppose it.  Lies are politicians’ tools.  Exposing candidates’ lies during a political debate would be compared to requiring a magician to expose the secrets behind each trick during the course of a performance.

It is up to the voters to insist that political campaigns are not magic.  Some politicians may have a supernatural ability for making enormous amounts of money appear in their campaign accounts, but the truth of what these candidates say should not be shrouded in mystery.  Beyond that, viewers should not be required to take notes and then look up each fact on a website to determine whether a politician is lying.  The use of three different, independent fact-checking services would provide a more objective measure of truth-telling.

Here’s hoping that the 2016 election campaign will involve the use of real-time fact checking during the debates.  We might find ourselves watching candidates who have more integrity than the characters we have been watching during the current campaign cycle.


 

Talking To The Money

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By now, you’ve heard about it dozens of times.  Mitt Romney is taking heat for remarks he made at a private fundraiser in Boca about the 47 percent of Americans who won’t vote for him because they enjoy taking handouts from the government.  In response to the dustup, the Romney camp has focused on remarks made by Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign about people who “cling to their guns and religion”.  Obama’s discussion with “Joe the Plumber” about “spreading the wealth around” has been cited as another example of Obama’s favoritism of one population segment over another.  Nevertheless, as Brit Hume explained to Greta on Fox News, the Republicans’ focus on those remarks did not work during the 2008 campaign and there is no reason to believe that it will gain any more traction during the current election cycle.

Actually, there is a better example of Obama’s expression of contempt for a bloc of voters during a fundraiser, which is somewhat analogous the situation involving Romney in Boca.  During the mid-term election campaign in September of 2010, Obama managed to alienate a good number of his own supporters during an event at the home of the appropriately-named Rich Richman.  The event demonstrated how politicians – from either party – will speak more candidly and cynically about the “little people” when talking to their fat cat contributors.  Nevertheless, the Republicans will not likely exploit Obama’s remarks at the Rich-man event.  Of course, Obama supporters would be reminded that their candidate is not a significantly different alternative to Romney.  However, by the same token, Romney supporters would be reminded that their candidate does not offer a significantly distinct alternative to Obama.  As a result, the Republicans will never use it.

Let’s jump into the time machine and look back at how I discussed the Richman event on September 20, 2010:

President Obama recently spoke at a $30,000-per-plate fundraising event for the Democratic National Committee at the home of Richard and Ellen Richman.  (Think about that name for a second:  Rich Richman.)  Mr. Richman lives up to his surname and resides in the impressive Conyers Farm development in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Christopher Keating of the Capitolwatch blog at courant.com provided us with the President’s remarks, addressed to the well-heeled attendees:

.   .   .   Democrats, just congenitally, tend to get – to see the glass as half empty.   (Laughter.)  If we get an historic health care bill passed – oh, well, the public option wasn’t there.  If you get the financial reform bill passed –  then, well, I don’t know about this particularly derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that.  And gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace and – (laughter.)  I thought that was going to happen quicker.  (Laughter.) You know who you are.  (Laughter.)

The tactlessness of those remarks was not lost on Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com.  Mr. Greenwald transcended the perspective of an offended liberal to question what could possibly have been going on in the mind of the speaker:

What’s most striking about Obama’s comments is that there is no acceptance whatsoever of responsibility (I’ve failed in some critical areas; we could have/should have done better).  There’s not even any base-motivating vow to fight to fix these particular failures (we’ll keep fighting for a public option/to curb executive power abuses/to reduce lobbyist and corporate control of our political process).  Instead, he wants you to know that if you criticize him — or even question what he’s done (“well, I don’t know about this particular derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that”) – it’s your fault:  for being some sort of naive, fringe-leftist idiot who thought he would eliminate the Pentagon and bring about world peace in 18 months, and/or because you simply don’t sufficiently appreciate everything he’s done for you because you’re congenitally dissatisfied.

*    *    *

Sitting at a $30,000 per plate fundraising dinner and mocking liberal critics as irrational ingrates while wealthy Party donors laugh probably does wonders for bruised presidential egos, but it doesn’t seem to be a particularly effective way to motivate those who are so unmotivated.  Then again, Barack Obama isn’t actually up for election in November, so perhaps the former goal is more important to him than the latter.  It certainly seems that way from these comments.

Of course, liberals weren’t the only Obama supporters who felt betrayed by the President’s abandonment of his campaign promises.  In fact, Obama owed his 2008 victory to those independent voters who drank the “Hope and Change” Kool-Aid.

Glenn Greenwald devoted some space from his Salon piece to illustrate how President Obama seems to be continuing the agenda of President Bush.  I was reminded of the quote from former Attorney General John Ashcroft in an article written by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker.  When discussing how he expected the Obama Presidency would differ from the Presidency of his former boss, George W. Bush, Ashcroft said:

“How will he be different?  The main difference is going to be that he spells his name ‘O-b-a-m-a,’ not ‘B-u-s-h.’ ”

One important difference that Ashcroft failed to anticipate was that Bush knew better than to disparage his own base.

By the onset of the 2012 Presidential Campaign, many of Obama’s 2008 supporters had become ambivalent about their former hero.  As I pointed out on August 13, once Romney had named Paul “Marathon Man” Ryan as his running mate (rather than Ohio Senator Rob Portman), he provided Democrats with a bogeyman to portray a Romney Presidency as a threat  to middle-class Americans:

As the Democratic Party struggled to resurrect a fraction of the voter enthusiasm seen during the 2008 campaign, Mitt Romney came along and gave the Democrats exactly what they needed:  a bogeyman from the far-right wing of the Republican Party.  The 2012 campaign suddenly changed from a battle against an outsourcing, horse ballet elitist to a battle against a blue-eyed devil who wants to take away Medicare.  The Republican team of  White and Whiter had suddenly solved the problem of Democratic voter apathy.

Nevertheless, some degree of disillusionment experienced by Obama’s supporters continues.  Consider the final paragraph from a September 20 essay by Robert Reich:

And even if Obama is reelected, more hard work begins after Inauguration Day – when we must push him to be tougher on the Republicans than he was in his first term, and do what the nation needs.

In other words, it will be up to the voters  to make sure they aren’t betrayed by Obama as they were during his first term.

The Republican insistence on attempting to portray Obama as a “Socialist” rather than a disingenuous poseur has served no other purpose than to invite an eloquent smackdown from the namesake of the GOP’s Patron Saint.

Romney’s failure to win the Presidential Election will be more the result of ignored opportunities than the result of gaffes.


 

Wisconsin Bogeyman Will Help Obama

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Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate will do more so solve President Obama’s voter apathy problem than it will do to boost the enthusiasm of Republican voters.  While the Tea Party branch of the Republican Party complains that “Massachusetts moderate” Romney is not a significant alternative to Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s base complains the bank-centric Obama administration is indistinguishable from a Romney administration.  Criticism of the Obama administration’s domestic surveillance program comes from across the political spectrum.  One need look no further than the Business Insider to find disappointment resulting from the Obama administration’s efforts to turn America into a police state.

As the Democratic Party struggled to resurrect a fraction of the voter enthusiasm seen during the 2008 campaign, Mitt Romney came along and gave the Democrats exactly what they needed:  a bogeyman from the far-right wing of the Republican Party.  The 2012 campaign suddenly changed from a battle against an outsourcing, horse ballet elitist to a battle against a blue-eyed devil who wants to take away Medicare.  The Republican team of White and Whiter had suddenly solved the problem of Democratic voter apathy.

I recently expressed the opinion that the only logical candidate for Romney to select as his running mate would have been Ohio Senator Rob Portman.  In the wake of Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan, a number of commentators have emphasized that Portman would have been a smarter choice.  Polling wiz Nate Silver recently voiced a similar opinion:

Politics 101 suggests that you play toward the center of the electorate.  Although this rule has more frequently been violated when it comes to vice-presidential picks, there is evidence that presidential candidates who have more “extreme” ideologies (closer to the left wing or the right wing than the electoral center) underperform relative to the economic fundamentals.

Various statistical measures of Mr. Ryan peg him as being quite conservative.  Based on his Congressional voting record, for instance, the statistical system DW-Nominate evaluates him as being roughly as conservative as Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

*   *   *

Because of these factors, a recent analysis I performed placed Mr. Ryan 10th from among 14 potential vice-presidential picks in terms of his immediate impact on the Electoral College.  If Mr. Romney wanted to make the best pick by this criterion, he would have been better off to choose an alternative like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, or Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia.

Nate Silver was not alone with his premise that Romney’s choice of Ryan was made out of desperation.  At the Right Condition blog, Arkady Kamenetsky not only emphasized that the Ryan candidacy will help galvanize Obama’s liberal base – he went a step further to demonstrate that the Ryan budget is a “smoke and mirrors” pretext for preserving the status quo.  After highlighting Ryan’s support of TARP, Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind, Arkady Kamenetsky performed a detailed comparison of the Ryan budget with the Obama budget to demonstrate a relatively insignificant difference between the two.  Kamenetsky concluded the piece with these observations:

So this of course begs the question, why did Romney do this?  Why select a VP that will provide such easy ammunition for the Left with virtually no reward?  The answer is quite simple.  Romney and Ryan represent exactly the same problem even if one appears to be a moderate and the other appears to be an epic fiscal warrior.  The Republican party fights for and pushes through the status-quo.  The images you see up above and the Ryan record is the status-quo.  No doubt about it.

Yet Romney is counting on the ignorance of Republican base to run with the facade of Ryan’s conservatism.  If that illusion holds then Ryan’s image will invariably boost Romney’s own image as many will view Romney’s decision as courageous and bold despite Obama’s willingness to distort Ryan’s budget.  In other words, you are witnessing a most fantastic and glamorous circus.  A bad Hollywood movie, except that ending will be quite real and not something you can pause or turn off.

*   *   *
Romney and Ryan will lose in November and the image of the heartless Conservative killing granny will resonate with America, the tragedy of course is that neither Ryan or Romney are willing to actually cut anything!  The tragedy will become even more amusing as we will witness a nasty and partisan fight further dividing Americans as they fight and defend differing policies with the exact same results.

During the coming weeks, watch for efforts by the mainstream news media to portray this election as a close contest – in their own desperate attempts to retain an audience for what will probably turn out to be the least exciting Presidential campaign since Reagan vs. Carter.


Geithner Gets Bashed in New Book

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Much has been written about “Turbo” Tim Geithner since he first became Treasury Secretary on January 26, 2009.  In his book, Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote adoringly about Geithner’s athletic expertise.  On the other hand, typing “Turbo Tim Geithner” into the space on the upper-right corner of this page and clicking on the little magnifying glass will lead you to no less than 61 essays wherein I saw fit to criticize the Treasury Secretary.  I first coined the “Turbo” nickname on February 9, 2009 and on February 16 of that year I began linking “Turbo” to an explanatory article, for those who did not understand the reference.

Geithner has never lacked defenders.  The March 10, 2010 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title was meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system were working, although he was not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, the New Yorker piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he had been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns dismissed the New Yorker article as “an out and out puff piece” that Geithner himself could have written:

Don’t be fooled; this is a clear plant to help bolster public opinion for a bailout and transfer of wealth, which was both unnecessary and politically damaging.

Another article on Geithner, appearing in the April 2010 issue of The Atlantic, was described by Edward Harrison as “fairly even-handed” although worthy of extensive criticism.  Nevertheless, after reading the following passage from the first page of the essay, I found it difficult to avoid using the terms “fawning and sycophantic” to describe it:

In the course of many interviews about Geithner, two qualities came up again and again.  The first was his extraordinary quickness of mind and talent for elucidating whatever issue was the preoccupying concern of the moment.  Second was his athleticism.  Unprompted by me, friends and colleagues extolled his skill and grace at windsurfing, tennis, basketball, running, snowboarding, and softball (specifying his prowess at shortstop and in center field, as well as at the plate).  He inspires an adolescent awe in male colleagues.

Gawd!  Yeech!

In November of 2008, President George W. Bush appointed Neil M. Barofsky to the newly-established position, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP).  Barofsky was responsible for preventing fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds.  From his first days on that job, Neil Barofsky found Timothy Geithner to be his main opponent.  On March 31 of 2009, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the oversight of TARP.  The hearing included testimony by Neil Barofsky, who explained how the Treasury Department had been interfering with his efforts to ascertain what was being done with TARP funds which had been distributed to the banks.  Matthew Jaffe of ABC News described Barofsky’s frustration in attempting to get past the Treasury Department’s roadblocks.

On the eve of his retirement from the position of Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP), Neil Barofsky wrote an op-ed piece for the March 30, 2011 edition of The New York Times entitled, “Where the Bailout Went Wrong”.  Barofsky devoted a good portion of the essay to a discussion of the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”, with a particular focus on the Treasury Department:

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

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

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

It should come as no surprise that in Neil Barofsky’s new book, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street, the author pulls no punches in his criticism of Timothy Geithner.  Barofsky has been feeding us some morsels of what to expect from the book by way of some recent articles in Bloomberg News.  Here is some of what Barofsky wrote for Bloomberg on July 22:

More important, the financial markets continue to bet that the government will once again come to the big banks’ rescue.  Creditors still give the largest banks more favorable terms than their smaller counterparts — a direct subsidy to those that are already deemed too big to fail, and an incentive for others to try to join the club.  Similarly, the major banks are given better credit ratings based on the assumption that they will be bailed out.

*   *   *

The missteps by Treasury have produced a valuable byproduct: the widespread anger that may contain the only hope for meaningful reform. Americans should lose faith in their government.  They should deplore the captured politicians and regulators who distributed tax dollars to the banks without insisting that they be accountable.  The American people should be revolted by a financial system that rewards failure and protects those who drove it to the point of collapse and will undoubtedly do so again.

Only with this appropriate and justified rage can we hope for the type of reform that will one day break our system free from the corrupting grasp of the megabanks.

In his review of Barofsky’s new book, Darrell Delamaide of MarketWatch discussed the smackdown Geithner received from Barofsky:

Barofsky may have an axe to grind, but he grinds it well, portraying Geithner as a dissembling bureaucrat in thrall to the banks and reminding us all that President Barack Obama’s selection of Geithner as his top economic official may have been one of his biggest mistakes, and a major reason the White House incumbent has to fight so hard for re-election.

From his willingness to bail out the banks with virtually no accountability, to his failure to make holders of credit default swaps on AIG take a haircut, to his inability to mount any effective program for mortgage relief, Geithner systematically favored Wall Street over Main Street and created much of the public’s malaise in the aftermath of the crisis.

*    *    *

Barofsky, a former prosecutor, relates that he rooted for Geithner to get the Treasury appointment and was initially willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when it emerged that he had misreported his taxes while he worked at the International Monetary Fund.

But as more details on those unpaid taxes came out and Geithner’s explanations seemed increasingly disingenuous, Barofsky had his first doubts about the secretary-designate.

Barofsky, of course, was not alone in his skepticism, and Geithner’s credibility was damaged from the very beginning by the disclosures about his unpaid taxes.

*   *   *

Barofsky concludes his scathing condemnation of Geithner’s “bank-centric policies” by finding some silver lining in the cloud – that the very scale of the government’s failure will make people angry enough to demand reform.

Once Geithner steps down from his position at the end of the year, we may find that his legacy is defined by Neil Barofsky’s book, rather than any claimed rescue of the financial system.


 

Seeing Through Obama

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Now that Mitt Romney has secured the Republican presidential nomination, commentators are focusing on the question of whether the candidate can motivate the conservative Republican base to vote for the “Massachusetts moderate” in November.

Meanwhile, it is becoming obvious that after three years in the White House, Barack Obama has managed to alienate the liberal base of the Democratic Party.  The Firedog Lake website has been among the most vocal, left-leaning blogs to regularly criticize the President.  The site’s publisher, Jane Hamsher, has picked up on Public Citizen’s campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama is attempting to sneak past the public before November.  On April 27, Ms. Hamsher provided us with this warning:

The White House wants to fast track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “free trade” agreement with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.  Japan is waiting in the wings, Canada and Mexico want in, Taiwan has announced its intention to meet membership requirements and China says it will “earnestly study” whether to seek entry into the agreement.

Basically, the TPP is NAFTA on steroids.  The White House wants to reach a deal prior to the election because they know all the apparatchiks feeding on the $1 billion in Obama campaign money flowing through the system will launch tribalistic attacks on anyone organizing against it (activists, labor unions, workers) for “helping Mitt Romney win” – thus facilitating its easy passage.

*   *   *

At an April 4 press conference in the Rose Garden, President Obama said that TPP “could be a real model for the world.”  Earlier this month the US limited the ability of public interest groups to have input into the process.  So much for the “most transparent administration ever.”

At her Naked Capitalism blog, Yves Smith introduced a video clip of Matt Stoller’s appearance on Cenk Uygur’s television program with the following anecdote:

Matt Stoller, in this video clip from an interview last week with Cenk Uygur (hat tip Doug Smith), sets forth what should be widely accepted truths about Obama:  that he’s an aggressive proponent of policies that favor the 1%.  Yet soi disant progressives continue to regard him as an advocate of their interests, when at best, all he does is pander to them.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a black woman after an Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking Group meeting.  She was clearly active in New York City housing politics and knowledgeable about policy generally.  I started criticizing Obama’s role in the mortgage settlement.  She said:

I have trouble with members of my community.  I think Obama needs not to be President.  I think he needs to be impeached.  But no one in my community wants to hear that.  I tell them it’s like when your mother sees you going out with someone who is no good for you.

“Why don’t you leave him?  What does he do for you?”

“But Momma, I love him.”

“He knocked you down the stairs, took your keys, drove your car to Florida, ran up big bills on your credit card, and Lord only knows what else he did when he was hiding from you.”

“But Momma, I still love him.”

Her story applies equally well to the oxymoron of the Establishment Left in America. Obama is not only not their friend, but he abuses them, yet they manage to forgive all and come back for more.

In an article published by The Nation, Naomi Klein pulled the rose-colored glasses off the faces of many Obama fans with this review of the President’s performance so far:

After nine months in office, Obama has a clear track record as a global player.  Again and again, US negotiators have chosen not to strengthen international laws and protocols but rather to weaken them, often leading other rich countries in a race to the bottom.

After discussing Obama’s failure to take a leading role to promote global efforts to combat pollution, or to promote human rights, Ms. Klein moved on to highlight Obama’s subservience to the financial oligarchy:

And then there are the G-20 summits, Obama’s highest-profile multilateral engagements.  When one was held in London in April, it seemed for a moment that there might be some kind of coordinated attempt to rein in transnational financial speculators and tax dodgers.  Sarkozy even pledged to walk out of the summit if it failed to produce serious regulatory commitments.  But the Obama administration had no interest in genuine multilateralism, advocating instead for countries to come up with their own plans (or not) and hope for the best – much like its reckless climate-change plan.  Sarkozy, needless to say, did not walk anywhere but to the photo session to have his picture taken with Obama.

Of course, Obama has made some good moves on the world stage – not siding with the coup government in Honduras, supporting a UN Women’s Agency… But a clear pattern has emerged:  in areas where other wealthy nations were teetering between principled action and negligence, US interventions have tilted them toward negligence.  If this is the new era of multilateralism, it is no prize.

While watching Saturday evening’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I was particularly impressed by Jimmy Kimmel’s face-to-face confrontation with President Obama concerning the administration’s crackdown on medical marijuana clinics.  One of Obama’s most outspoken critics from the left – Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald – pulled no punches while upbraiding the President for yet another broken campaign promise:

President Obama gave an interview to Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner this week and was asked about his administration’s aggressive crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries, including ones located in states where medical marijuana is legal and which are licensed by the state; this policy is directly contrary to Obama’s campaign pledge to not “use Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana.”  Here’s part of the President’s answer:

I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it’s against federal law.  I can’t nullify congressional law.  I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, “Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books” . . . .

The only tension that’s come up – and this gets hyped up a lot – is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users.  In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we’re telling them, “This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way.”  That’s not something we’re going to do. 

Aside from the fact that Obama’s claim about the law is outright false – as Jon Walker conclusively documents, the law vests the Executive Branch with precisely the discretion he falsely claims he does not have to decide how drugs are classified – it’s just extraordinary that Obama is affirming the “principle” that he can’t have the DOJ “turn the other way” in the face of lawbreaking.

*   *   *

The same person who directed the DOJ to shield torturers and illegal government eavesdroppers from criminal investigation, and who voted to retroactively immunize the nation’s largest telecom giants when they got caught enabling criminal spying on Americans, and whose DOJ has failed to indict a single Wall Street executive in connection with the 2008 financial crisis or mortgage fraud scandal, suddenly discovers the imperatives of The Rule of Law when it comes to those, in accordance with state law, providing medical marijuana to sick people with a prescription.

It’s becoming obvious that Mitt Romney is not the only candidate who will have to worry about whether his party’s “base” will bother to stand in line at the polls in November, to vote for a candidate who does not find it necessary to accommodate the will of the voters who elect him.


 

Trouble Ahead

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I find it very amusing that we are being bombarded with so many absurd election year “talking points” and none of them concern the risk of a 2012 economic recession.  The entire world seems in denial about a global problem which is about to hit everyone over the head.  I’m reminded of the odd brainstorming session in September of 2008, when Presidential candidates Obama and McCain were seated at the same table with a number of econ-honchos, all of whom were scratching their heads in confusion about the financial crisis.  Something similar is about to happen again.  You might expect our leaders to be smart enough to avoid being blindsided by an adverse economic situation – again – but this is not a perfect world.  It’s not even a mediocre world.

After two rounds of quantitative easing, the Kool-Aid drinkers are sipping away, in anticipation of the “2012 bull market”.  Even the usually-bearish Doug Kass recently enumerated ten reasons why he expects the stock market to rally “in the near term”.  I was more impressed by the reaction posted by a commenter – identified as “Skateman” at the Pragmatic Capitalism blog.  Kass’ reason #4 is particularly questionable:

Mispaced preoccupation with Europe:  The European situation has improved.   .  .  .

Skateman’s reaction to Kass’ reason #4 makes more sense:

The Europe situation has not improved.  There is no escape from ultimate disaster here no matter how the deck chairs are rearranged.  Market’s just whistling past the graveyard.

Of particular importance was this recent posting by Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), wherein he emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  After presenting his readers with the most recent data supporting his claim, Mish concluded with these thoughts:

Telling banks to lend in the midst of a deepening recession with numerous austerity measures yet to kick in is simply absurd.  If banks did increase loans, it would add to bank losses.  The smart thing for banks to do is exactly what they are doing, parking cash at the ECB.

Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.

*   *   *

Don’t expect the US to be immune from a Eurozone recession and a Chinese slowdown.  Unlike 2011, it will not happen again.

Back on October 8, Jeff Sommer wrote an article for The New York Times, discussing the Economic Cycle Research Institute’s forecast of another recession:

“If the United States isn’t already in a recession now it’s about to enter one,” says Lakshman Achuthan, the institute’s chief operations officer.  It’s just a forecast.  But if it’s borne out, the timing will be brutal, and not just for portfolio managers and incumbent politicians.  Millions of people who lost their jobs in the 2008-9 recession are still out of work.  And the unemployment rate in the United States remained at 9.1 percent in September.  More pain is coming, says Mr. Achuthan.  He thinks the unemployment rate will certainly go higher.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back up into double digits,” he says.

Mr. Achuthan’s outlook was echoed by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, who pointed out in his latest Weekly Market Comment that investors have been too easily influenced by recent positive economic data such as payroll reports and Purchasing Managers Indices:

I can understand this view in the sense that the data points are correct – economic data has come in above expectations for several weeks, the Chinese, European and U.S. PMI’s have all ticked higher in the latest reports, new unemployment claims have declined, and December payrolls grew by 200,000.

Unfortunately, in all of these cases, the inference being drawn from these data points is not supported by the data set of economic evidence that is presently available, which is instead historically associated with a much more difficult outcome.  Specifically, the data set continues to imply a nearly immediate global economic downturn.  Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) has noted if the U.S. gets through the second quarter of this year without falling into recession, “then, we’re wrong.”  Frankly, I’ll be surprised if the U.S. gets through the first quarter without a downturn.

At the annual strategy seminar held by Société Générale, their head of strategy – Albert Edwards – attracted quite a bit of attention with his grim prognostications.  The Economist summarized his remarks this way:

The surprise message for investors is that he feels the US is on the brink of another recession, despite the recent signs of optimism in the data (the non-farm payrolls, for example).  The recent temporary boost to consumption is down to a fall in the household savings ratio, which he thinks is not sustainable.

Larry Elliott of The Guardian focused on what Albert Edwards had to say about China and he provided more detail concerning Edwards’ remarks about the United States:

“There is a likelihood of a China hard landing this year.  It is hard to think 2013 and onwards will be any worse than this year if China hard-lands.”

*   *   *

He added that despite the recent run of more upbeat economic news from the United States, the risk of another recession in the world’s biggest economy was “very high”.  Growth had slowed to an annual rate of 1.5% in the second and third quarters of 2011, below the “stall speed” that historically led to recession.  It was unlikely that the economy would muddle through, Edwards said.

So there you have it.  The handwriting is on the wall.  Ignore it at your peril.


 

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Latest Obama Cave-in Is Likely To Further Erode His Base

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Well, he did it again.  Despite the fact that President Obama had vowed to veto the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows for indefinite detention of American citizens without trial, the White House announced that the President will breach yet another promise and sign the controversial bill.

Jeremy Herb at The Hill reported on the administration’s concern that if Obama were to veto the bill, there might not have been enough votes in Congress to prevent an override of that veto.  In other words:  Obama was afraid of being embarrassed.  The report noted the defensive language contained in the official White House spin, to the effect that some minor changes in wording were made to satisfy the President:

The White House backed down from its veto threat of the defense authorization bill Wednesday, saying that the bill’s updated language would not constrain the Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts.

*   *   *

The administration won some changes in conference committee, which wrapped up Monday, including the addition of a clause stating that FBI and local law enforcement counterterrorism activities would not be altered by the law.

Big deal.  Let the outrage begin!  At the Huffington Post, Michael McAuliff noted that the President had already decided to back down on his veto threat before the House of Representatives passed the bill:

The switch came just before the House voted 283-136 to pass the National Defense Authorization Act despite impassioned opposition that crossed party lines, with Democrats splitting on the bill and more than 40 Republicans opposing it.  Numerous national security experts and civil liberties advocates had argued that the indefinite detention measure enshrines recent, questionable investigative practices that are contrary to fundamental American rights.

At the Human Rights Watch website, no punches were pulled in their criticism of Obama’s latest betrayal of those very principles his supporters expected him to advance:

The Obama administration had threatened to veto the bill, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), over detainee provisions, but on December 14, 2011, issued a statement indicating the president would likely sign the legislation.

“By signing this defense spending bill, President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.  “In the past, Obama has lauded the importance of being on the right side of history, but today he is definitely on the wrong side.”

*   *   *

The far-reaching detainee provisions would codify indefinite detention without trial into US law for the first time since the McCarthy era when Congress in 1950 overrode the veto of then-President Harry Truman and passed the Internal Security Act.

*   *   *

“It is a sad moment when a president who has prided himself on his knowledge of and belief in constitutional principles succumbs to the politics of the moment to sign a bill that poses so great a threat to basic constitutional rights,” Roth said.

Many people might not know that quantitative equity research analyst and former hedge fund manager, Barry Ritholtz (author of Bailout Nation) is an alumnus of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, where he served on the Law Review, and graduated Cum Laude with a 3.56 GPA.  Here are some of the recent comments made by Mr. Ritholtz concerning the National Defense Authorization Act:

While this is shocking, it is not occurring in a vacuum.  Indeed, it is part of a 30 year-long process of militarization inside our borders and a destruction of the American concepts of limited government and separation of powers.

*   *   *

Other Encroachments On Civil Rights Under Obama

As bad as Bush was, the truth is that, in many ways, freedom and constitutional rights are under attack even more than during the Bush years.

For example:

Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history – even more so than Nixon.

*   *   *

Furthermore – as hard as it is for Democrats to believe – the disinformation and propaganda campaigns launched by Bush have only increased under Obama.  See this and this.

And as I pointed out last year:

According to Department of Defense training manuals, protest is considered “low-level terrorism”.  And see this, this and this.

An FBI memo also labels peace protesters as “terrorists”.

At his blog, The Big Picture, Ritholtz made these points in a December 3 argument against the passage of this bill:

You might assume – in a vacuum – that this might be okay (even though it trashes the Constitution, the separation of military and police actions, and the division between internal and external affairs).

But it is dangerous in a climate where you can be labeled as or suspected of being a terrorist simply for questioning war, protesting anything, asking questions about pollution or about Wall Street shenanigans, supporting Ron Paul, being a libertarian, holding gold, or stocking up on more than 7 days of food.  And see this.

Once again, President Obama has breached a promise to his supporters out of fear that he could be embarrassed in a showdown with Congress.  Worse yet, Obama has acted to subvert the Constitutional right of Due Process simply because he wants to avoid the shame of a veto override.  As many commentators have observed, George W. Bush was not plagued by any such weakness and he went on to push a good number of controversial initiatives through Congress – most notably the Iraq War Resolution.  I find it surprising that so many of President Obama’s important decisions have been motivated by a fear of embarrassment, while at the same time he has exhibited no concern about exposing such timidity to both his allies and his opponents – wherever they may be.


 

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More Favorable Reviews For Huntsman

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In my last posting, I focused on how Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate to present responsible ideas for regulating the financial industry (Obama included).  Since that time, I have read a number of similarly favorable reactions from respected authorities and commentators who reviewed Huntsman’s proposals .

Simon Johnson is the former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2007-2008.  He is currently the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  At his Baseline Scenario blog, Professor Johnson posted the following comments in reaction to Jon Huntsman’s policy page on financial reform and Huntsman’s October 19 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal:

More bailouts and the reinforcement of moral hazard – protecting bankers and other creditors against the downside of their mistakes – is the last thing that the world’s financial system needs.   Yet this is also the main idea of the Obama administration.  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told the Fiscal Times this week that European leaders “are going to have to move more quickly to put in place a strong firewall to help protect countries that are undertaking reforms,” meaning more bailouts.  And this week we learned more about the underhand and undemocratic ways in which the Federal Reserve saved big banks last time around.  (You should read Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, to understand Mr. Geithner’s philosophy of unconditional bailouts; remember that he was president of the New York Fed before become treasury secretary.)

Is there really no alternative to pouring good money after bad?

In a policy statement released this week, Governor Jon Huntsman articulates a coherent alternative approach to the financial sector, which begins with a diagnosis of our current problem:  Too Big To Fail banks,

“To protect taxpayers from future bailouts and stabilize America’s economic foundation, Jon Huntsman will end too-big-to-fail. Today we can already begin to see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts. More than three years after the crisis and the accompanying bailouts, the six largest U.S. financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were before the crisis, having been encouraged by regulators to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices”

Mr. Geithner feared the collapse of big banks in 2008-09 – but his policies have made them bigger.  This makes no sense.  Every opportunity should be taken to make the megabanks smaller and there are plenty of tools available, including hard size caps and a punitive tax on excessive size and leverage (with any proceeds from this tax being used to reduce the tax burden on the nonfinancial sector, which will otherwise be crushed by the big banks’ continued dangerous behavior).

The goal is simple, as Mr. Huntsman said in his recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece: make the banks small enough and simple enough to fail, “Hedge funds and private equity funds go out of business all the time when they make big mistakes, to the notice of few, because they are not too big to fail.  There is no reason why banks cannot live with the same reality.”

The quoted passage from Huntsman’s Wall Street Journal essay went on to say this:

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product—at least $9.4 trillion, up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.  There is no evidence that institutions of this size add sufficient value to offset the systemic risk they pose.

The major banks’ too-big-to-fail status gives them a comparative advantage in borrowing over their competitors thanks to the federal bailout backstop.

Far be it from President Obama to make such an observation.

Huntsman’s policy page on financial reform included a discussion of repealing the Dodd-Frank law:

More specifically, real reform means repealing the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, which perpetuates too-big-to-fail and imposes costly and mostly useless regulations on innocent smaller banks without addressing the root causes of the crisis or anticipating future crises.  But the overregulation cannot be addressed without ending the bailout subsidies, so that is where reform must begin.

Beyond that, Huntsman’s Wall Street Journal piece gave us a chance to watch the candidate step in shit:

Once too-big-to-fail is fixed, we could then more easily repeal the law’s unguided regulatory missiles, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  American banks provide advice and access to capital to the entrepreneurs and small business owners who have always been our economic center of gravity.  We need a banking sector that is able to serve that critical role again.

American banks also do a lot to screw their “personal banking” customers (the “little people”) and sleazy “payday loan”-type operations earn windfall profits exploiting those workers whose incomes aren’t enough for them to make it from paycheck-to-paycheck.  The American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  American consumers have always been “our economic center of gravity” and the CFPB was designed to protect them.  Huntsman would do well to jettison his anti-CFPB agenda if he wants to become President.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, exhibited a similarly “hot and cold” reaction to Huntsman’s proposals for financial reform.  What follows is a passage from a recent posting at his Rortybomb blog, entitled “Huntsman Wants to Repeal Dodd-Frank so he can Pass Title VII of Dodd-Frank”:

So we need to get serious about derivatives regulation by bringing transparency to the over-the-counter derivatives market, with serious collateral requirements.  This was turned into law as the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act of 2010, or Title VII of Dodd-Frank.

So we need to eliminate Dodd-Frank in order to pass Dodd-Frank’s resolution authority and derivative regulations – two of the biggest parts of the bill – but call it something else.

You can argue that Dodd-Frank’s derivative rules have too many loopholes with too much of the market exempted from the process and too much power staying with the largest banks.  But those are arguments that Dodd-Frank doesn’t go far enough, where Huntsman’s critique of Dodd-Frank is that it goes way too far.

Huntsman should be required to explain the issues here – is he against Dodd-Frank before being for it?  Is his Too Big To Fail policy and derivatives policy the same as Dodd-Frank, and if not how do they differ?  It isn’t clear from the materials he has provided so far how the policies would be different, and if it is a problem with the regulations in practice how he would get stronger ones through Congress.

I do applaud this from Huntsman:

RESTORING RULE OF LAW

President Huntsman’s administration will direct the Department of Justice to take the lead in investigating and brokering an agreement to resolve the widespread legal abuses such as the robo-signing scandal that unfolded in the aftermath of the housing bubble.  This is a basic question of rule of law; in this country no one is above the law. There are also serious issues involving potential violations of the securities laws, particularly with regard to fair and accurate disclosure of the underlying loan contracts and property titles in mortgage-backed securities that were sold.  If investors’ rights were abused, this needs to be addressed fully.  We need a comprehensive settlement that puts all these issues behind us, but any such settlement must include full redress of all legal violations.

*   *   *

And I will note that the dog-whistles hidden inside the proposal are towards strong reforms (things like derivatives reform “will also allow end-users to negotiate better terms with Wall Street and in turn lower trading costs” – implicitly arguing that the dealer banks have too much market power and it is the role of the government to create a fair playing field).  Someone knows what they are doing.  His part on bringing down the GSEs doesn’t mention the hobbyhorse of the Right that the CRA and the GSEs caused the crisis, which is refreshing to see.

If Republican voters are smart, they will vote for Jon Huntsman in their state primary elections.  As I said last time:  If Jon Huntsman wins the Republican nomination, there will be a serious possibility that the Democrats could lose control of the White House.


 

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Here Comes Huntsman

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The bombastic non-Romney Republican Presidential hopeful, Herman Cain, has been providing us with a very entertaining meltdown.  He has attempted to silence the handful of women, who came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, with threatened defamation suits.  Nevertheless, a woman who claimed to have been his paramour for thirteen years – Ginger White – possessed something the other women lacked:  documentation to back up her claim.  She has produced phone records, revealing that Cain was in contact with her at all hours of the day and night.  Cain’s humorously disingenuous response:  He was providing advice to Ms. White concerning her financial problems.  When I first heard about Ginger White’s allegations, I assumed that she was motivated to tell her story because she felt outraged that Cain had been trying to cheat on her by making inappropriate advances toward those other women.

The next non-Romney candidate to steal the Republican spotlight was Newt Gingrich.  Aside from the fact that Newt exudes less charisma than a cockroach, he has a “baggage” problem.  Maureen Dowd provided us with an entertaining analysis of the history professor’s own history.  The candidate and his backers must be counting on that famously short memory of the voting public.  The biggest problem for Gingrich is that even if he could win the Republican nomination, he will never get elected President.

Meanwhile, Romney’s fellow Mormon, Jon Huntsman, is gaining momentum in New Hampshire.  Huntsman has something the other Republicans lack:  the ability to win support from Independent and Democratic voters.  The unchallenged iron fists of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, currently in control of the Republican party, have dictated to the masses that the very traits which give Huntsman a viable chance at the Presidency – are negative, undesirable characteristics.

Conservative commentator Ross Douthat of The New York Times, took a hard look at the mismanaged Huntsman campaign:

Huntsman is branded as the Republican field’s lonely moderate, of course, which is one reason why he’s currently languishing at around 3 percent in the polls.

*   *   *

Huntsman has none of Romney’s health care baggage, and unlike the former Massachusetts governor, he didn’t spend the last decade flip-flopping on gun rights, immigration and abortion.

*   *   *

At the same time, because Huntsman is perceived as less partisan than his rivals, he has better general election prospects.  The gears and tumblers of my colleague Nate Silver’s predictive models give Huntsman a 55 percent chance of knocking off the incumbent even if the economy grows at a robust 4 percent, compared to Romney’s 40 percent.

*   *   *

On issues ranging from foreign affairs to financial reform, Huntsman’s proposals have been an honorable exception to the pattern of gimmickry and timidity that has characterized the Republican field’s policy forays.

But his salesmanship has been staggeringly inept.  Huntsman’s campaign was always destined to be hobbled by the two years he spent as President Obama’s ambassador to China.  But he compounded the handicap by introducing himself to the Republican electorate with a series of symbolic jabs at the party’s base.

As Ross Douthat pointed out, New Hampshire will be Huntsman’s “make-or-break” state.  The candidate is currently polling at 11 percent in New Hampshire and he has momentum on his side.  Rachelle Cohen of the Boston Herald focused on Huntsman’s latest moves, which are providing his campaign with some traction:

Monday Huntsman introduced a financial plan aimed at cutting the nation’s biggest banks and financial institutions down to size so that they are no longer “too big to fail” and, therefore, would never again become a burden on the American taxpayer.

“There will be no more bailouts in this country,” he said, because taxpayers won’t put up with that kind of strategy again.  “I would impose a fee [on the banks] to protect the taxpayers until the banks right-size themselves.”

The strategy, of course, is likely to be music to the ears of anyone who despised not just the bailouts but those proposed Bank of America debit card fees.  And, of course, it gives Huntsman a good opening to make a punching bag of Mitt Romney.

“If you’re raising money from the big banks and financial institutions, you’re never going to get it done,” he said, adding, “Mitt Romney is in the hip pocket of Wall Street.”  Lest there be any doubt about his meaning.

That issue also happens to be the Achilles heel for President Obama.  Immediately after he was elected, Obama smugly assumed that Democratic voters would have to put up with his sellout to Wall Street because the Republican party would never offer an alternative.  Huntsman’s theme of cracking down on Wall Street will redefine the Huntsman candidacy and it could pose a serious threat to Obama’s reelection hopes.  Beyond that, as Ms. Cohen noted, Huntsman brings a unique skill set, which distinguishes him from his Republican competitors:

But it’s on foreign policy that Huntsman – who served not only in China and Singapore but as a deputy U.S. trade representative with a special role in Asia – excels, and not just because he’s fluent in Mandarin.

This is the guy anyone would feel comfortable having answer that proverbial 3 a.m. phone call Hillary Clinton once talked about.

If that phone call is coming from China – Huntsman won’t have to wake up an interpreter to conduct the conversation in Chinese.

Any other Republican candidate will serve as nothing more than a doormat for Obama.  On the other hand, if Jon Huntsman wins the Republican nomination, there will be a serious possibility that the Democrats could lose control of the White House.


 

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