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When the Music Stops

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Forget about all that talk concerning the Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012.  The date you should be worried about is January 1, 2013.  I’ve been reading so much about it that I decided to try a Google search using “January 1, 2013” to see what results would appear.  Sure enough – the fifth item on the list was an article from Peter Coy at Bloomberg BusinessWeek entitled, “The End Is Coming:  January 1, 2013”.  The theme of that piece is best summarized in the following passage:

With the attention of the political class fixated on the presidential campaign, Washington is in danger of getting caught in a suffocating fiscal bind.  If Congress does nothing between now and January to change the course of policy, a combination of mandatory spending reductions and expiring tax cuts will kick in – depriving the economy of oxygen and imperiling a recovery likely to remain fragile through the end of 2012.  Congress could inadvertently send the U.S. economy hurtling over what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently called a “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases.”

Peter Coy’s take on this impending crisis seemed a bit optimistic to me.  My perspective on the New Year’s Meltdown had been previously shaped by a great essay from the folks at Comstock Partners.  The Comstock explanation was particularly convincing because it focused on the effects of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing programs, emphasizing what many commentators describe as the Fed’s “Third Mandate”:  keeping the stock market inflated.  Beyond that, Comstock pointed out the absurdity of that cherished belief held by the magical-thinking, rose-colored glasses crowd:  the Fed is about to introduce another round of quantitative easing (QE 3).  Here is Comstock’s dose of common sense:

A growing number of indicators suggest that the market is running out of steam.  Equities have been in a temporary sweet spot where investors have been factoring in a self-sustaining U.S. economic recovery while also anticipating the imminent institution of QE3.  This is a contradiction.  If the economy were indeed as strong as they say, we wouldn’t need QE3.  The fact that market observers eagerly look forward toward the possibility of QE3 is itself an indication that the economy is weaker than they think.  We can have one or the other, but we can’t have both.

After two rounds of quantitative easing – followed by “operation twist” – the smart people are warning the rest of us about what is likely to happen when the music finally stops.  Here is Comstock’s admonition:

The economy is also facing the so-called “fiscal cliff” beginning on January 1, 2013.  This includes expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cuts, emergency unemployment benefits and the sequester.  Various estimates placed the hit to GDP as being anywhere between 2% and 3.5%, a number that would probably throw the economy into recession, if it isn’t already in one before then.  At about that time we will also be hitting the debt limit once again.   U.S. economic growth will also be hampered by recession in Europe and decreasing growth and a possible hard landing in China.

Technically, all of the good news seems to have been discounted by the market rally of the last three years and the last few months.  The market is heavily overbought, sentiment is extremely high, daily new highs are falling and volume is both low and declining.  In our view the odds of a significant decline are high.

Charles Biderman is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of TrimTabs Investment Research.  He was recently interviewed by Chris Martenson.  Biderman’s primary theme concerned the Federal Reserve’s “rigging” of the stock market through its quantitative easing programs, which have steered so much money into stocks that stock prices have now become a “function of liquidity” rather than fundamental value.  Biderman estimated that the Fed’s liquidity pump has fed the stock market “$1.8 billion per day since August”.  He does not believe this story will have a happy ending:

In January of ’10, I went on CNBC and on Bloomberg and said that there is no money coming into stocks, and yet the stock market keeps going up.  The law of supply and demand still exists and for stock prices to go up, there has to be more money buying those shares.  There is no other way in aggregate that that could happen.

So I said it has to be coming from the government.  And everybody thought I was a lunatic, conspiracy theorist, whatever.  And then lo and behold, on October of 2011, Mr. Bernanke then says officially, that the purpose of QE1 and QE2 is to raise asset prices.  And if I remember correctly, equities are an asset, and bonds are an asset.

So asset prices have gone up as the Fed has been manipulating the market. At the same time as the economy is not growing (or not growing very fast).

*   *   *

At some point, the world is going to recognize the Emperor is naked. The only question is when.

Will it be this year?  I do not think it will be before the election, I think there is too much vested interest in keeping things rosy and positive.

One of my favorite economists is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman warned us that the “music” must eventually stop:

What remains then is a fairly simple assertion:  the primary way to boost corporate profits to abnormally high – but unsustainable – levels is for the government and the household sector to both spend beyond their means at the same time.

*   *   *

The conclusion is straightforward.  The hope for continued high profit margins really comes down to the hope that government and the household sector will both continue along unsustainable spending trajectories indefinitely.  Conversely, any deleveraging of presently debt-heavy government and household balance sheets will predictably create a sustained retreat in corporate profit margins.  With the ratio of corporate profits to GDP now about 70% above the historical norm, driven by a federal deficit in excess of 8% of GDP and a deeply depressed household saving rate, we view Wall Street’s embedded assumption of a permanently high plateau in profit margins as myopic.

Will January 1, 2013 be the day when the world realizes that “the Emperor is naked”?  Will the American economy fall off the “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” eleven days after the end of the Mayan calendar?  When we wake-up with our annual New Year’s Hangover on January 1 – will we all regret not having followed the example set by those Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel?

Get your “bug-out bag” ready!  You still have nine months!


 

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Secret Phone Call

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I’ve been reading a great number of articles by commentators who have expressed outrage concerning President Obama’s shocking capitulation in the negotiations involving the debt ceiling bill.  Despite the Democratic Party’s tactic of blaming the “Tea Party terrorists” for the all cuts – no revenue, pro-billionaire legislation, a few pundits have seen through this fog to point out that Obama actually got the bill he secretly wanted all along.  Glenn Greenwald presented a solid case for this theory at Salon.

Polling guru Nate Silver wrote two items on August 1, in which he analyzed the Congressional voting and demonstrated that President Obama – despite having been afforded the opportunity to include provisions in the bill to make it more economically stimulative and less onerous for those experiencing the greatest hardship from the economic crisis – decided to leave some available provisions “on the table”.

Nate Silver initially made this observation:

Fiscal austerity at a time of economic distress, and on largely Republican terms, is not what Democrats thought they were getting when they elected Mr. Obama in 2008.  Mr. Obama might have done more to make short-term stimulus – like further reductions to the payroll tax, which would not have violated the Republicans’ ostensible goals – the  price for long-term austerity.

Although it is impossible to prove one way or the other, I am not persuaded by the notion that Mr. Obama could not have delivered a better result to Democrats had he done more to stand his ground.  Despite the dissent in the Republican caucus, which had originally seemed like a tactical victory for Democrats, the compromise wound up looking more like Mr. Boehner’s original bill than Mr. Reid’s.

Later that evening, Mr. Silver provided an analysis, which exposed Obama’s abandonment of the objectives he was elected to promote:

These results seem to suggest that Mr. Obama left something on the table.  That is, Mr. Obama could have shifted the deal tangibly toward the left and still gotten a bill through without too much of a problem.  For instance, even if all members of the Tea Party Caucus had voted against the bill, it would still have passed 237-to-193, and that’s with 95 Democrats voting against it.

Specifically, it seems likely that Mr. Obama could have gotten an extension of the payroll tax cut included in the bill, or unemployment benefits, either of which would have had a stimulative effect.

*   *   *

With that payroll tax cut, the deal becomes a much easier sell to Democrats – and perhaps also to swing voters, particularly given that nobody spent much time during this debate talking about jobs.  Plus, it would have improved growth in 2012 and, depending on how literally you take the economic models, improved Mr. Obama’s re-election chances.

As many observers have noted, the plutocracy has been able to accomplish much more with Obama in the White House, than what would have been achievable with a Republican President.  This latest example of a bipartisan effort to trample “the little people” has reinforced my belief that the fake “two-party system” is a sideshow – designed to obfuscate the insidious activities of the Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party.

What follows is the transcript of an imaginary telephone conversation between President Obama and Roger Ailes of Fox News:

Obama:  Hi Rodge!

Ailes:  Hi Barry!  Congratulations on the debt ceiling bill!  Great work!

Obama:  Thanks.  I won’t have to renew the Bush tax cuts again until after the election.  That’s a relief!  Unfortunately, we’re getting some bad polling numbers now.  Problems with the base.  I need you guys to lean on the “liberal” stuff a little harder.  Both O’Reilly and Hannity have been doing OK on it – but I just wish they would get back to some more of the “socialist” accusations.  That would really help rehabilitate my cred with my estranged base.

Ailes:       The “socialist” shtick was more Beck’s routine – but I’ll get them on it.

Obama:   I found some old pictures of myself with Bill Ayers that you guys might want to use    . . .

Ailes:       Ayers is sooooo 2008!  We need something new.  We need to get you to Syria for a meeting with Bashar al-Assad.  When you shake hands with him – make sure you bow!  We can get a lot of mileage here from that!

Obama:   No!  That will piss off too many liberals – especially the Jews.  I’m trying to keep the smart people in my corner!

Ailes:       OK.  OK.  We just really need to get you on some sort of apology tour or something.  You could start traveling around to abortion clinics and promising them some federal aid  .  .  .

Obama:   Great one, Rodge!  I love that!

Ailes:       I’ll plant some of our protesters along the way – the ones who’ve already been cleared by the Secret Service.

Obama:   Yeah!  Bring back that guy with the fake assault rifle!  He was a trip!

Ailes:       I have someone better.  This guy has been posing as a “Tea Party activist” at “town meetings”.  He’s a great new talent!

Obama:   We could set up another “Joe the Plumber”-type of confrontation with that guy!

Ailes:       Definately!  I’ll have my people put a script together.  That story will have some legs that will carry us all the way to the election!  . . .  Speaking of legs – I’m getting some good numbers in on Bachmann!

Obama:   How’s our girl doing?

Ailes:       Great!  She’s really gonna’ kick some ass in Iowa!

Obama:   I saw her on with Sean the other day.  She’s doing a great job!  Are you guys going to start a scandal involving Mitt?

Ailes:       I need to maintain plausible deniability about what Rupert’s operatives are up to.  You know  .  .  .

Obama:   Gotcha!  ‘Nuff said!

Ailes:       Well, I’ll let you get back to work.  You must have loads of angry campaign donors trying to bend your ear right about now  . . .

Obama:   Yeah  . . .  But that’s not where the real money is.

Ailes:       Amen!


 

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Giving Centrism A Bad Name

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It seems as though every time some venal politician breaches a campaign promise while attempting to grab a payoff from a lobbyist, the excuse is always the same:  “I’ve decided to tack toward the center on this issue.”  “The Center” has become stigmatized as the dwelling place of those politicians who lack a moral compass.

I get particularly annoyed by those who persist in characterizing Barack Obama as a “centrist”, who is mimicking Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” strategy.  During his campaign and throughout the early days of his Presidency, Obama successfully posed as a centrist.  Nevertheless, his track record now demonstrates a policy of what Marshall Auerback described as “gutting the Democratic Party of its core social legacy.”   I particularly enjoyed reading the comments to Auerback’s above-quoted piece about Obama entitled, “Worse Than Hoover”.  Most of the commentators expressed the opinion that Auerback went way too easy on Obama.  Here are some examples:

Sandra:

We have to stop comparing Obama to these iconic American figures. Obama is an opportunistic corporatist. There is no there there.

Rex:

I’m beginning to wonder if we are still giving Obummer too much credit.  Common view seems to be trending toward he’s a manipulative scumbag.

Wasabi:

He’s very useful to the plutocracy.  A Repub president could never persuade Dems to cut SS, Medicare, and Medicaid and all sorts of other essential programs.

Z:

He got the glory and the thrill of winning the election to become the 1st black president and I suspect that’s all the narcissio-path ever really wanted as far as the presidency is concerned.  He certainly doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself right now.  I think he’s ready to cash out and is trying to create a scenario where he becomes an untenable candidate.  He also wants to maintain his celebrity appeal so he’s going to try to posture as the adult of adults that was just too good for dc …

Steelhead23:

From a more technocratic perspective, I tend to see Obama as a consummate politician – able to inspire – but sadly lacking in intellectual curiosity and overflowing with ego, thus unable to quench his ignorance.  This leaves him extremely susceptible to “experts” whom he parrots with enthusiasm.  It was experts who helped him pick his advisers and now his expert advisers are misleading him and making him complicit in this quest toward neo-feudalism.

Keep in mind that those comments were not posted at Fox News or some right-wing website.  They were posted at Naked Capitalism, where the publisher – Yves Smith – offered a comment of her own in reaction to Marshall Auerback’s “Worse Than Hoover” posting.

Yves Smith:

Obama is an authoritarian narcissist, an ugly combination.

He also seems unaware of the limits of his knowledge.  That can render many otherwise intelligent people stupid in their decisions and actions in their blind spots.

Obama’s foremost critic from the Left is Glenn Greenwald of Salon.  Mr. Greenwald has frequently opined that “… Obama wants to be attacked by liberals because of the perception that it politically benefits him by making him look centrist, non-partisan and independent . . .   It’s not merely that he lacks a fear of liberal dissatisfaction; it’s that he affirmatively craves it.”  Greenwald emphasized the foolishness of following such a course:

But that’s a dangerous strategy.  U.S. presidential elections are very closely decided affairs, and alienating the Left even to some degree can be lethal for a national Democratic campaign; shouldn’t the 2000 election, along with 2010, have cemented that lesson forever?

I doubt that Obama is attempting to follow anything similar to Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” strategy.  If Obama had been attempting such a plan, it has already backfired to an embarrassing degree, causing irreparable damage to the incumbent’s reelection prospects.  Barack Obama has lost his credibility – and in the eyes of the electorate, there is no greater failing.

To get an appreciation for how much damage Obama has caused to his own “brand”, consider this article written by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs for the Huffington Post:

Thus, at every crucial opportunity, Obama has failed to stand up for the poor and middle class.  He refused to tax the banks and hedge funds properly on their outlandish profits; he refused to limit in a serious way the bankers’ mega-bonuses even when the bonuses were financed by taxpayer bailouts; and he even refused to stand up against extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich last December, though 60 percent of the electorate repeatedly and consistently demanded that the Bush tax cuts at the top should be ended.  It’s not hard to understand why.  Obama and Democratic Party politicians rely on Wall Street and the super-rich for campaign contributions the same way that the Republicans rely on oil and coal.  In America today, only the rich have political power.

*   *   *

America is more militarily engaged under Obama than even under Bush.  Amazing but true.

*   *   *

The stimulus legislation, pushed by Obama at the start of his term on the basis of antiquated economic theories, wasted the public’s money and also did something much worse.  It discredited the vital role of public spending in solving real and long-term problems.  Rather than thinking ahead and planning for long-term solutions, he simply spent money on short-term schemes.

Obama’s embrace of “shovel-ready” infrastructure, for example, left America with an economy based on shovels while China’s long-term strategy has given that country an economy based on 21st-century Maglev trains.  Now that the resort to mega-deficits has run its course, Obama is on the verge of abandoning the poor and middle class, by agreeing with the plutocrats in Congress to cut spending on Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and discretionary civilian spending, while protecting the military and the low tax rates on the rich (if not lowering those top tax rates further according to the secret machinations of the Gang of Six, now endorsed by the president!)

*   *   *

America needs a third-party movement to break the hammerlock of the financial elites.  Until that happens, the political class and the media conglomerates will continue to spew lies, American militarism will continue to destabilize a growing swath of the world, and the country will continue its economic decline.

The urgent need for a third-party movement was also the subject of this recent piece at The Economic Populist:

If the country had a legitimate third party to vote for, the Democrats and Republicans would be in serious trouble.  Of course, the political system is geared to prevent third parties from emerging, so the country flounders about, looking for leadership from pusillanimous Democrats or ideological Republicans who consider raising taxes a mortal sin.  The voters are probably a few steps away from concluding what is meant to be hidden but by now should be obvious:  American democracy doesn’t exist, and the political system in Washington is beyond repair.  What is worse: there are people and organizations who like things just the way they are and will fight any attempts at reform.

*   *   *

None of this suggests that Barack Obama is even considering abandoning his servitude to corporate interests.  He’s merrily going along from one fundraiser to the next, raising millions of dollars each week from hedge fund managers and corporate lobbyists, so that he can get reelected as a “centrist” and bipartisan deal maker.  This is based on his reading of what The People want – an end to the divisiveness in Washington – but Obama is fundamentally misreading the problem in Washington.  It isn’t the rancor, name-calling, and petulance that is constantly on display which worries the American people.  It is the backroom deals, the hidden bailouts, the tax evasions, the deregulation initiatives, the lack of prosecution for criminal behavior, that is more than frustrating Americans, because the beneficiaries of all this are wealthy people and corporations who have shifted power and money to themselves.  Voters want this system overthrown – even the Tea Party voters, who keep searching for Republicans who will finally say no to corporate money.

In the mean time, we are stuck witnessing America’s demise.  If you think that Obama’s critics from the Left are the only people voicing a dispirited attitude about our country’s future, be sure to read this essay at Counterpunch, “An Economy Destroyed”, written by Paul Craig Roberts – Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during the Reagan Administration and the co-creator of Reaganomics:

Recently, the bond rating agencies that gave junk derivatives triple-A ratings threatened to downgrade US Treasury bonds if the White House and Congress did not reach a deficit reduction deal and debt ceiling increase.  The downgrade threat is not credible, and neither is the default threat.  Both are make-believe crises that are being hyped in order to force cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

*   *   *

The US economy is driven by consumer demand, but with 22.3 per cent unemployment, stagnant and declining wages and salaries, and consumer debt burdens so high that consumers cannot borrow to spend, there is nothing to drive the economy.

Washington’s response to this dilemma is to increase the austerity!  Cutting back Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, forcing down wages by destroying unions and offshoring jobs (which results in a labor surplus and lower wages), and driving up the prices of food and energy by depreciating the dollar further erodes consumer purchasing power.  The Federal Reserve can print money to rescue the crooked financial institutions, but it cannot rescue the American consumer.

As a final point, confront the fact that you are even lied to about “deficit reduction.”  Even if Obama gets his $4 trillion “deficit reduction” over the next decade, it does not mean that the current national debt will be $4 trillion less than it currently is.  The “reduction” merely means that the growth in the national debt will be $4 trillion less than otherwise.  Regardless of any “deficit reduction,” the national debt ten years from now will be much higher than it presently is.

The longer you think about it – the more obvious it becomes:  We really need to sweep all of those bastards out of Washington as quickly as possible and replace them with intelligent, honest individuals who are willing to represent this country’s human inhabitants – rather than its corporations, lobbies and “special interests”.


 

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Why Au-scare-ity Still Has Traction

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Many economists have been watching Britain’s experiment with austerity for quite a while.  Britain has been following a course of using cuts in government programs along with mass layoffs of public sector workers in attempt to stimulate economic growth.  Back in February, economist Dean Baker made this observation:

Three months ago, I noted that the United States might benefit from the pain being suffered by the citizens of the United Kingdom.  The reason was the new coalition government’s commitment to prosperity through austerity.  As predicted, this looks very much like a path to pain and stagnation, not healthy growth.

That’s bad news for the citizens of the United Kingdom.  They will be forced to suffer through years of unnecessarily high unemployment.  They will also have to endure cutbacks in support for important public services like healthcare and education.

But the pain for the people in England could provide a useful example for the United States.

*   *   *

Prior to this episode, there was already a solid economic case that large public deficits were necessary to support the economy in the period following the collapse of an asset bubble. The point is simply that the private sector is not prepared to make up the demand gap, at least in the short term.  Both short-term and long-term interest rates are pretty much as low as they can be.

*   *   *

From this side of the pond, though, the goal is simply to encourage people to pay attention.  The UK might be home to 60 million people, but from the standpoint of US economic policy, it is simply exhibit A:  it is the country that did what our deficit hawks want to do in the US.

The takeaway lesson should be “austerity does not work; don’t go there.”  Unfortunately, in the land of faith-based economics, evidence does not count for much.  The UK may pursue a disastrous austerity path and those of us in the United States may still have to follow the same road anyhow.

After discussing the above-quoted commentary by Dean Baker, economist Mark Thoma added this:

Yes — it’s not about evidence, it’s about finding an excuse to implement an ideology.  The recession got in the way of those efforts until the idea that austerity is stimulative came along. Thus, “austerity is stimulative” is being used very much like “tax cuts increase revenues.”  It’s a means of claiming that ideological goals are good for the economy so that supporters in Congress and elsewhere have a means of rationalizing the policies they want to put in place.  It’s the idea that matters, and contrary evidence is brushed aside.

There seems to be an effort in many quarters to deny that the financial crisis ever happened.  Although it will eventually become absolutely imperative to get deficits under control, most sober economists emphasize that attempting to do so before the economy begins to recover and before the unemployment crisis is even addressed – would destroy any chance of economic recovery.  Barack Obama’s opponents know that the easiest route toward subverting the success of his re-election campaign involves undermining any efforts toward improving the economy to any degree by November of 2012.  Beyond that, the fast-track implementation of a British-style austerity program could guarantee a double-dip recession, which could prove disastrous to Obama’s re-election hopes.  As a result, the pressure is on to initiate some significant austerity measures as quickly as possible.  The propaganda employed to expedite this effort involves scaring the sheeple into believing that the horrifying budget deficit is about to bite them in the ass right now.  There is a rapidly increasing drumbeat to crank-up the scare factor.

Of course, the existence of this situation is the result of Obama’s own blunder.  Although he did manage to defeat Osama bin Laden, President Obama’s February, 2009 decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  In his own “Tora Bora moment”, President Obama decided to rely on the advice of the very people who helped cause the financial crisis, by doing 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.  In April of 2009, Obama chose to parrot the discredited “money multiplier” myth, fed to him by Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner, in order to justify continuous corporate welfare for the megabanks.  If Obama had followed the right course, by pushing a stronger, more infrastructure-based stimulus program through the Democrat-controlled Senate and House, we would be enjoying a more healthy economy right now.  A significant number of the nearly fifteen million people currently unemployed could have found jobs from which they would now be paying income taxes, which reduce the deficit.  But that didn’t happen.  President Obama has no one else to blame for that error.  His opponents are now attempting to “snowball” that mistake into a disaster that could make him a one-term President.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich saw this coming back in March:

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.

Professor Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, recently brought the focus of the current economic debate back to where it belongs:

In the nation’s latest fiscal mood swing, the mainstream consensus has swung from “we must extend the Bush tax cuts” (in December 2010) towards “we must immediately cut the budget deficit.”  The prevailing assumption, increasingly heard from both left and right, is that we already have far too much government debt – and any further significant increase will likely ruin us all.

This way of framing the debate is misleading – and very much at odds with US fiscal history.  It masks the deeper and important issues here, which are much more about distribution, in particular how much are relatively wealthy Americans willing to transfer to relatively poor Americans?

*   *   *

The real budget debate is not about a few billion here or there – for example in the context of when the government’s “debt ceiling” will be raised.  And it is not particularly about the last decade’s jump in government debt level – although this has grabbed the headlines, this is something that we can grow out of (unless the political elite decides to keep cutting taxes).

The real issue is how much relatively rich people are willing to pay and on what basis in the form of transfers to relatively poor people – and how rising healthcare costs should affect those transfers.

As the Tea Partiers flock to movie theaters to watch Atlas Shrugged, perhaps it’s time for a porno send-up, based on a steamy encounter between Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko called, Greed Feels Good.


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Betting Against Obama

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Most Congressional Democrats and supporters of President Obama are anxious to see an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  Nevertheless, as of this writing, the President has yet to even vote “present” on this issue.  Obama’s waffling throughout the tax cut debate has once again exposed his weak leadership skills, which are never overlooked by the people at Fox News:

“The players on the field want a game plan,” said one senior Democratic congressional aide who requested anonymity to be candid about caucus sentiment. “There’s an increasing frustration from members that there is not a plan … There is just tremendous frustration.  I mean, where are they?”

The aide noted that Senate Democrats, meeting behind closed doors Wednesday and most likely Thursday, intend to discuss the tax cuts, but there is one notable absence.

“Where is the White House?  There’s no one here talking to us today or tomorrow,” the aide fumed   .   .   .

*   *   *

Democrats are waiting for an express statement from the President, despite the fact that Obama opened the window on a temporary extension just after the midterm elections.

“We should have done this already.  Our bosses go home and are hounded about this.  I don’t get it.  Just extend the cuts for a few years and be done with it.  There are way too many fingers in the wind on this from both sides (of the aisle),” another senior Democratic aide involved in tax policy for years told Fox.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, began a recent blog posting with this observation:

The President says a Republican proposal to extend the Bush tax cuts to everyone for two years is a “basis for conversation.”  I hope this doesn’t mean another Obama cave-in.

Unfortunately, in all likelihood it does mean “another Obama cave-in”  — and it probably won’t be the last.  Professor Reich ended that piece with this rhetorical question:

If the President can’t or won’t take a stand now — when he still has a chance to prevail in the upcoming lame-duck Congress — when will he ever?

Answer:  Never (unless it means taking a stand – once again – in support of the Wall Street banks).

In the mean time, while Obama dithers, a group of 40 “Patriotic Millionaires” has stepped forward after writing a letter to the President, in which they urged him not to renew the Bush tax cuts for anyone earning more than $1 million a year.  Joe Conason included the text of that letter in a recent piece for Salon.  The Patriotic Millionaires expressed an opinion, which the President apparently fears might not be shared by his top campaign contributors:

We have done very well over the last several years.  Now, during our nation’s moment of need, we are eager to do our fair share.  We don’t need more tax cuts, and we understand that cutting our taxes will increase the deficit and the debt burden carried by other taxpayers.  The country needs to meet its financial obligations in a just and responsible way.

A similar stance was taken by billionaire financier Warren Buffet, during an interview conducted by Christiane Amanpour on the ABC News program This Week.  When confronted by Amanpour about the claim that those tax cuts for the very wealthy are what energize business and capitalism, Buffet gave this response:

“The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you.  But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on,” Buffett explained.

Writing for The Hill, Alexander Bolton discussed the frustrations experienced by Congressional Democrats, who are often left twisting in the wind while the President works out a strategy for traveling up a fork in the road:

Senate Democrats want President Obama to take a more hands-on role in legislative battles next year, when Republicans will have additional clout on Capitol Hill.

Democratic lawmakers say Obama could have done more to connect his legislative agenda to the concerns of voters — a shortcoming the president himself has admitted.

As the moment approaches for 2012 Presidential aspirants to declare their candidacy, Mr. Obama’s shortcomings are widely understood.  If the Democrats want to hold the White House, somebody with some guts should step forward pretty soon.


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Keeping Americans Dumb

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August 26, 2010

Much has been written lately about the fact that Americans are becoming increasingly dumb.  How has this happened?  Some commentators have expressed the opinion that young people spend too much time playing video games and not enough time reading.  Whatever the cause, the statistics are shocking.  Lloyd de Vries recently did a report for CBS News concerning a Roper Poll of people aged 18-24, conducted for National Geographic.  Despite the wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Katrina, one-third of those polled could not locate Louisiana on a map.  Only 50 percent could locate New York State on a map.  Sixty percent could not locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East.  A recent Gallup Poll revealed more of the same:

When Americans are asked to identify the country from which America gained its independence, 76% correctly name Great Britain.  A handful, 2%, think America’s freedom was won from France, 3% mention some other country (including Russia, China, and Mexico, among others named), while 19% are unsure.

*   *   *

Only 66% of those aged 18-29 know that America gained its independence from England, compared to 79% of those aged 30 and older.

My favorite result from that poll was the revelation that 18 percent of the respondents believe that the sun revolves around the earth.  Roll over, Copernicus!

After reading so much of the news coverage concerning the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico (it’s west of Florida and south of the Alabama – Mississippi border) I’m beginning to suspect that the news and entertainment industries are responsible for dumbing-down Americans.  While we’re at it – we should be mindful of the role of the United States government in this effort.  Consider what our President said on August 4th:

“A report out today by our scientists shows that the vast majority of the spilled oil has been dispersed or removed from the water,” Obama said.

Beth Daley of the Boston Globe gave us another example of what our government told us about all that oil:

Earlier this month, Jane Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief, declared that “at least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system, and most of the remainder is degrading rapidly or is being removed from the beaches.’’

On August 20, we learned about the falsity of the government’s claims that the oil had magically disappeared.  The Washington Post put it this way:

Academic scientists are challenging the Obama administration’s assertion that most of BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico is either gone or rapidly disappearing — with one group Thursday announcing the discovery of a 22-mile “plume” of oil that shows little sign of vanishing.

As time drags on, it is becoming more apparent that both BP and the federal government are deliberately trying to conceal the extent of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon blowout.  Lisa Hooper-Bui is a professor of entomology at Louisiana State University.  She recently wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times, discussing the frustration experienced by scientists (including herself) who are attempting to measure the impact of this event on the environment.  As it turns out, unless you know “the secret handshake” – you might as well give up because you ain’t findin’ out nuttin’:

The problem is that researchers for BP and the government are being kept quiet, and their data is unavailable to the rest of the community.  When damages to the gulf are assessed in court or Congress, there might not be enough objective data to make a fair judgment.

*   *   *

Independent researchers like me and my team — we study the effect of things like oil and dispersants on insects — have had to rely on the meager discretionary funds provided by our university departments, particularly in the early weeks of the disaster.  And, as the weeks have rolled into months, we have found ourselves blocked from a widening list of sites, all of which are integral to completing our investigations.

America’s dumbed-down “sheeple” have been conditioned by the news media to disregard accounts of cover-ups, unless such accounts have been authorized by the corporate sponsors of those news outlets.  The expression “conspiracy theory” is invoked to serve as a stamp of falsehood on any factual account running contrary to a mainstream-approved narrative.  The usual tactics involve the use of such terms as “grassy knoll” or “Oliver Stone” as though the evidence disputing the “single bullet theory” of President Kennedy’s assassination has been conclusively discredited and that anyone who rejects the Warren Report is a fool.  (In fact, the most recent of the thousands of books on this subject —  Head Shot by physicist G. Paul Chambers, PhD — demonstrates that the physics behind the lone-gunman theory is not only wrong — but scientifically impossible.)

Uncritical reliance of the authority of the “mainstream” news media (and – for that matter – whatever can be found on the Internet) has also served to “dumb-down” Americans in a big way.  The horizons of our reality have been crimped to exclude “troublesome” information and our attention has been focused on American Idol drivel.  I was reminded of another example of the “conspiracy theory” stigma when I stumbled across this piece, appearing in the Financial Times, which was co-authored by President Clinton’s former Chief of Staff, John Podesta.  The article presented a great argument for allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest two percent of households.  When I saw Podesta’s name, I was reminded of his position on another so-called, “cover-up conspiracy theory” —  the subject of UFOs and what the government really knows about them.  Here is a video clip of John Podesta making the case for disclosure of data compiled by the United States government on the subject.  In a speech before the National Press Club on November 14, 2007, Mr. Podesta said this:

“I think it’s time to open the books” (on government investigations of UFOs).    .  .  .  “We ought to do it because it’s right.  We ought to do it because the American people, quite frankly, CAN handle the truth and we ought to do it because it’s the law.”

Yes, the truth is out there  —  but if you limit your information intake to what you are fed by the mainstream media (or any other authoritarian source) – you might not find it.



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More Good Stuff From David Stockman

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August 2, 2010

The people described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks” have their hands full.  Just as some Democrats, concerned about getting campaign contributions from rich people, were joining the ranks of the deficit chicken hawks to support extension of the Bush tax cuts, people from across the political spectrum spoke out against the idea.  As I pointed out on July 19, President Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – David Stockman – spoke out against extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, during an interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast:

The Bush tax cuts never should’ve been passed because, one, we couldn’t afford them, and second, we didn’t earn them  …

The infamous former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, had already spoken out against the Bush tax cuts on July 16, during an interview with Judy Woodruff on Bloomberg Television.  In response to Ms. Woodruff’s question as to whether the Bush tax cuts should be extended, Greenspan replied:  “I should say they should follow the law and let them lapse.”

When Alan Greenspan appeared on the August 1 broadcast of NBC’s Meet The Press, David Gregory directed Greenspan’s attention back to the interview with Judy Woodruff, and asked Mr. Greenspan if he felt that all of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to lapse.  Here is Greenspan’s reply and the follow-up:

MR.GREENSPAN:  Look, I’m very much in favor of tax cuts, but not with borrowed money.  And the problem that we’ve gotten into in recent years is spending programs with borrowed money, tax cuts with borrowed money, and at the end of the day, that proves disastrous.  And my view is I don’t think we can play subtle policy here on it.

MR. GREGORY:  You don’t agree with Republican leaders who say tax cuts pay for themselves?

MR. GREENSPAN:  They do not.

The drumbeat to extend the Bush tax cuts has been ongoing.  Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, claimed on July 23, that those tax cuts would be one way of providing stimulus for the economy – provided that such a move were to be offset “with increased revenue or lower spending.”  Increased revenue?  Does that mean that people – other than those earning in excess of $250,000 per year – should make up the difference by paying higher taxes?

On July 31, David Stockman came back with a huge dose of common sense, in the form of an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled, “Four Deformations of the Apocalypse”.  It began with this statement:

IF there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians, the Republican push to extend the unaffordable Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.  The nation’s public debt — if honestly reckoned to include municipal bonds and the $7 trillion of new deficits baked into the cake through 2015 — will soon reach $18 trillion.  That’s a Greece-scale 120 percent of gross domestic product, and fairly screams out for austerity and sacrifice.  It is therefore unseemly for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, to insist that the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers be spared even a three-percentage-point rate increase.

The article included a boxcar full of great thoughts – among them was Stockman’s criticism of the latest incarnation of voodoo economics:

Republicans used to believe that prosperity depended upon the regular balancing of accounts — in government, in international trade, on the ledgers of central banks and in the financial affairs of private households and businesses, too.  But the new catechism, as practiced by Republican policymakers for decades now, has amounted to little more than money printing and deficit finance — vulgar Keynesianism robed in the ideological vestments of the prosperous classes.

Mr. Stockman took care to lay blame at the foot of the man he described in the Lloyd Grove interview as an “evil genius” – Milton Friedman – who convinced President Nixon in 1971 to “to unleash on the world paper dollars no longer redeemable in gold or other fixed monetary reserves.”

Despite the fact that tax cuts are considered by many as the ultimate panacea for all of America’s economic problems, David Stockman set the record straight about how the religion of taxcut-ology began:

Through the 1984 election, the old guard earnestly tried to control the deficit, rolling back about 40 percent of the original Reagan tax cuts.  But when, in the following years, the Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, finally crushed inflation, enabling a solid economic rebound, the new tax-cutters not only claimed victory for their supply-side strategy but hooked Republicans for good on the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts.

By fiscal year 2009, the tax-cutters had reduced federal revenues to 15 percent of gross domestic product, lower than they had been since the 1940s.

Stockman’s discussion of “the vast, unproductive expansion of our financial culture” is probably just a teaser for his upcoming book on the financial crisis:

But the trillion-dollar conglomerates that inhabit this new financial world are not free enterprises.  They are rather wards of the state, extracting billions from the economy with a lot of pointless speculation in stocks, bonds, commodities and derivatives.  They could never have survived, much less thrived, if their deposits had not been governmentguaranteed and if they hadn’t been able to obtain virtually free money from the Fed’s discount window to cover their bad bets.

On the day following the publication of Stockman’s essay, Sarah Palin appeared on Fox News Sunday – prepared with notes again written on the palm of her hand – to argue in support of extending the Bush tax cuts.  Although her argument was directed against the Obama administration, I was fixated on the idea of a debate on the subject between Palin and her fellow Republican, David Stockman.  Some of those Republicans vying for their party’s 2012 Presidential nomination were probably thinking about the same thing.




Ignoring David Stockman

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July 19, 2010

With mid-term elections approaching, politicians are fearful of making any decisions or statements that may offend their wealthy contributors.  Accordingly, the prospect of allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire has become a source of outrage among Republicans.  In fact, many Democrats are afraid to touch this subject as their number of wealthy benefactors continues to shrink.

On July 11, Chris Wallace posed this question to Arizona Senator John Kyl on Fox News Sunday:

Senator, let me just break in, because I want to pick up on exactly the point that you just brought up, particularly, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  That is part of the big Republican growth agenda, let’s keep, not let expire, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

The fact is those would cost $678 billion over 10 years.  At a time Republicans are saying that they can’t extend unemployment benefits unless you pay for them, tell me, how are you going to pay that $678 billion to keep those Bush tax cuts for the wealthy?

Kyl responded with:  “Chris, that is a loaded question.”  Kyl continued to dodge the question, despite persistent follow-up from Wallace.  The Senator eventually escaped with this curious response:  “. . . you should never raise taxes in order to cut taxes.”  The apparent logic behind this statement was that you should never raise taxes on the wealthy in order to cut taxes for the middle class.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stepped up to reassure his party’s wealthy contributors that there would be a fight to keep those tax cuts in place – even if some of their old heroes thought the cuts were a bad idea.  Daniel Enoch of Bloomberg Businessweek put it this way:

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell spoke out against former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s call to let tax cuts that were passed during the administration of President George W. Bush expire.

One would expect that since Ronald Reagan has become a patron saint of the Republican Party, the opinions of Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman, might influence current opinion within the GOP.  Nevertheless, in a recent interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast, Stockman stepped on what has become a “third rail” for Republicans:

Stockman, a nominal tax-cutting supply-sider when he worked for Reagan, has been crusading in recent weeks for President Obama to let George W. Bush’s tax cuts expire — something that will happen automatically absent congressional intervention.

“The only thing Obama needs to do is say, ‘Gentlemen and Ladies of the Congress, don’t send me a tax bill because I don’t want one,’ ” Stockman tells me.  “He can take the political hit.  That’s his job.  That’s change you can believe in.  That would put $300 billion back into the coffers, beginning in 2011 and 2012, and it would erase one of the biggest policy blunders in history.  The Bush tax cuts never should’ve been passed because, one, we couldn’t afford them, and second, we didn’t earn them…  The lower half of American families don’t pay income tax, and they’re the people who ought to be given a break here.  By allowing these tax cuts to expire, you’re putting the burden on the top half of the income earners.  What is more fair than that?  So why does Obama want to extend, as apparently the White House has been saying, the tax cuts for $150,000-a-year families?  So the wife can buy her 19th Coach bag?”

Of course, we all know the answer to that question.   It’s because Obama is every bit as motivated as his adversaries to tailor his own policies toward generating campaign contributions.



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