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Congressional Sleaze In The Spotlight

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Last February, I wrote a piece entitled, “License To Steal”, concerning a certain legal loophole which allows members of Congress to trade stocks using “insider information”:

On January 26, 2009, Congressman Brian Baird introduced H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  The bill was intended to resolve the situation concerning one of the more sleazy “perks” of serving in Congress.  As it presently stands, the law prohibiting “insider trading” (e.g. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.  In that scenario, Ms. Stewart’s sale of the ImClone stock would have been entirely legal.  That’s because the laws which apply to you and I do not apply to those in Congress.  Needless to say, within six months of its introduction, H.R.682 was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties where it died of neglect.  Since that time, there have been no further efforts to propose similar legislation.

At a time when the public is finally beginning to understand how our elected officials are benefiting from a system of “legalized graft” in the form of campaign contributions, more attention is being focused on how the “real money” is made in Congress.  A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

Peter J. Boyer wrote an article for Newsweek, explaining how Peter Schweizer came about writing this book.  Schweizer is the William J. Casey research fellow at the Hoover Institution and as Boyer pointed out, Schweizer is considered by liberal critics as a “right wing hit man”.  It’s nice to see someone from the right provide us with an important treatise on crony capitalism.  The book exposes insider trading by both Democrats and Republicans – hell-bent on profiteering from the laws they enact.  Boyer’s essay provided us with some examples of the sleazy trades made by Congress-cretins, as described in Throw Them All Out.  Here are a few examples:

Indeed, Schweizer reports that, during the debate over Obama’s health-care reform package, John Boehner, then the House minority leader, was investing “tens of thousands of dollars” in health-insurance-company stocks, which made sizable gains when the proposed public option in the reform deal was killed.

*   *   *

One of the more dramatic episodes in the book recounts the trading activity of Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus, of Alabama, who, as the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, was privy to sensitive high-level meetings during the 2008 financial crisis and proceeded to make a series of profitable stock-option trades.

Bachus was known in the House as a guy who liked to play the market, and in fact he was pretty good at it; one year, he reported a capital gain in excess of $150,000 from his trading activities. More striking is that Bachus boldly carried forth his trading in the teeth of the impending financial collapse, the nightmarish dimensions of which he had learned about first-hand in confidential briefings from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke.  On Sept. 19, 2008, after attending two such briefings, Bachus bought options in an index fund (ProShares UltraShort QQQ) that effectively amounted to a bet that the market would fall.  That is indeed what happened, and, on Sept. 23, Bachus sold his “short” options, purchased for $7,846, for more than $13,000—nearly doubling his investment in four days.

Around the time Congress and the Bush administration worked out a TARP bailout, Bachus made another options buy and again nearly doubled his money.

*   *   *

After the first briefing from Bernanke and Paulson, brokers for Democratic Congressman Jim Moran, of Virginia, and his wife sold their shares in 90 companies, dodging the losses that others who stayed in the market would soon face. Republican Rep. Shelley Capito, of West Virginia, sold between $100,000 and $250,000 of Citigroup stock the day after the first meeting, recording capital gains on Citigroup transactions in that rocky period.

Peter Schweizer’s analysis of the bipartisan culture of corruption on Capitol Hill reinforces one of my favorite criticisms of American government:  Our Sham Two-Party System.  The Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party owes its allegiance to no population, no principle, no cause – other than pocketing as much money as possible.  Just as there have been some recent “pushback” efforts by outraged citizens, Schweizer is now advocating a “Throw Them All Out” campaign.  This could have a potentially significant impact on Congress, because the term of office in the House of Representatives lasts for only two years.  Consider Schweizer’s thought at the close of the Newsweek piece:

“I was troubled,” he says, “by the fact that the political elite gets to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us.  In the process of researching this book, I came to the conclusion that political party and political philosophy matter a lot less than we think.  Washington is a company town, and politics is a business. People wonder why we don’t get more change in Washington, and the reason is that the permanent political class is very comfortable.  Business is good.”

I concluded my February 28 posting with this point:

“Inside information” empowers the party in possession of that knowledge with something known as “information asymmetry”, allowing that person to take advantage of (or steal from) the less-informed person on the other side of the trade.  Because membership in Congress includes a license to steal, can we ever expect those same individuals to surrender those licenses?  Well, if they were honest  .   .   .

A successful “Throw Them All Out” campaign would obviate the necessity of attempting to convince this Congress to pass the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  If the next Congress knows that its political survival is depending on its passage of the STOCK Act, we might see it become law.


 

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Time For Some Serious Pushback

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The American people are finally getting angry.  I thought it would never happen.  In case you haven’t heard about it yet, the most popular topic on Twitter right now is:  #FuckYouWashington.  (For those who don’t like typing dirty words on their computer – there is the alternative #FYW.)  If you’re looking for some refreshing reading, which will reinforce your confidence in the people of this great country (especially after excessive exposure to the depressing, “debt ceiling” debate) be sure to check in on it.

Meanwhile, our fake, “two-party system” is facing a fresh challenge.  The Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party is being threatened by an Internet-based organization called, Americans Elect.  Here’s how the group describes itself:

Americans Elect is the first-ever open nominating process.  We’re using the Internet to give every single voter – Democrat, Republican or independent – the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012.  The people will choose the issues. The people will choose the candidates.  And in a secure, online convention next June, the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state.

*   *   *

We have no ties to any political group – left, right, or center.  We don’t promote any issues, ideology or candidates.  None of our funding comes from special interests or lobbyists.  Our only goal is to put a directly-nominated ticket on the ballot in 2012.

*   *   *

The goal of Americans Elect is to nominate a presidential ticket that answers to the people – not the political system.  Like millions of American voters, we simply want leadership that will work together to tackle the challenges facing our country.  And we believe a direct nominating process will prove that America is ready for a competitive, nonpartisan ticket.

Just when the Obama Administration was getting comfy with the idea that it could take the voters for granted  …  along came this new threat in the form of Americans Elect.  The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate.  A recent CNN poll revealed that Obama’s support among liberals has dropped to “the lowest point in his presidency”.  The man whom I characterized as the “Disappointer-In-Chief” during his third month in office, is now being referred to by The Nation as the “Compromiser-in-Chief”.  Ari Melber’s essay in The Nation provides a great summary of the criticism directed against Obama from the Left.  One example came from economist Paul Krugman, who described Obama as “President Pushover”.

In order to resist any new challenges to the status quo, the Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party is taking advantage of the proposed “debt ceiling” legislation to cement its absolute control over the United States government.  Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post provided us with the revelation of a bipartisan effort to create an authoritarian governing body, designed to circumvent Constitutionally-prescribed legislative procedures:

This “Super Congress,” composed of members of both chambers and both parties, isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but would be granted extraordinary new powers.  Under a plan put forth by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his counterpart Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), legislation to lift the debt ceiling would be accompanied by the creation of a 12-member panel made up of 12 lawmakers — six from each chamber and six from each party.

Legislation approved by the Super Congress — which some on Capitol Hill are calling the “super committee” — would then be fast-tracked through both chambers, where it couldn’t be amended by simple, regular lawmakers, who’d have the ability only to cast an up or down vote.  With the weight of both leaderships behind it, a product originated by the Super Congress would have a strong chance of moving through the little Congress and quickly becoming law.  A Super Congress would be less accountable than the system that exists today, and would find it easier to strip the public of popular benefits.  Negotiators are currently considering cutting the mortgage deduction and tax credits for retirement savings, for instance, extremely popular policies that would be difficult to slice up using the traditional legislative process.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has made a Super Congress a central part of his last-minute proposal, multiple news reports and people familiar with his plan say.

Independents and “Third-Party” members of Congress would be excluded from this “Super Congress”, thus subverting any attempts by the “little people” to steal control of the government away from the Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party.  Concern about the upstart Americans Elect organization could have been the motivating factor which inspired the “Super Congress” plan.  Tom Friedman’s recent New York Times commentary must have set off a “treason alert” for the Congressional kleptocrats, who read this:

Write it down:  Americans Elect.  What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life – remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in.  Watch out.

The Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party is already watching out.  That’s why they are moving to create a new, imperial “Super Congress”.  Be sure to express your opposition to this power grab by logging-on to Twitter and sharing your feelings at #FuckYouWashington.


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Another Great Idea From Ron Paul

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Congressman Ron Paul is one of the few original thinkers on Capitol Hill.  Sometimes he has great ideas, although at other times he might sound a little daft.  He recently grabbed some headlines by expressing the view that the United States “should declare bankruptcy”.  A June 28 CNN report focused on Paul’s agreement with the contention that if bankruptcy is the cure for Greece, it is also the cure for the United States.  However, as most economists will point out, the situation in Greece is not at all relevant to our situation because the United States issues its own currency and Greece is stuck with the euro, under the regime of the European Central Bank.  Anyone who can’t grasp that concept should read this posting by Cullen Roche at the Seeking Alpha website.

Nevertheless, economist Dean Baker picked up on one of Congressman Paul’s points, which – if followed through to its logical conclusion – could actually solve the debt ceiling impasse.  The remark by Ron Paul which inspired Dean Baker was a gripe about the $1.6 trillion in Treasury securities that the Federal Reserve now holds as a result of two quantitative easing programs:

“We owe, like, $1.6 trillion because the Federal Reserve bought that debt, so we have to work hard to pay the interest to the Federal Reserve,” Paul said. “We don’t, I mean, they’re nobody; why do we have to pay them off?”

In an article for The New Republic, Dr. Baker commended Dr. Paul for his creativity and agreed that having the Federal Reserve Board destroy the $1.6 trillion in government bonds it now holds as a result of quantitative easing “is actually a very reasonable way to deal with the crisis”.  Baker provided this explanation:

Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion to the Treasury.  In this sense, the bonds held by the Fed are literally money that the government owes to itself.

Unlike the debt held by Social Security, the debt held by the Fed is not tied to any specific obligations.  The bonds held by the Fed are assets of the Fed.  It has no obligations that it must use these assets to meet.  There is no one who loses their retirement income if the Fed doesn’t have its bonds.  In fact, there is no direct loss of income to anyone associated with the Fed’s destruction of its bonds.  This means that if Congress told the Fed to burn the bonds, it would in effect just be destroying a liability that the government had to itself, but it would still reduce the debt subject to the debt ceiling by $1.6 trillion. This would buy the country considerable breathing room before the debt ceiling had to be raised again.  President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership could have close to two years to talk about potential spending cuts or tax increases.  Maybe they could even talk a little about jobs.

Unfortunately, the next passage of Dr. Baker’s essay exposed the reason why this simple, logical solution would never become implemented:

As it stands now, the Fed plans to sell off its bond holdings over the next few years.  This means that the interest paid on these bonds would go to banks, corporations, pension funds, and individual investors who purchase them from the Fed.

And therein lies the rub:  The infamous “too-big-to-fail” banks could buy those bonds with money borrowed from the Fed at a fractional interest rate, and then collect the yield on those bonds – entirely at the expense of American taxpayers!  Not only would the American people lose money by loaning the bond purchase money to the banks almost free of charge – we would lose even more money by paying those banks interest on the money we just loaned to those same banks – nearly free of charge.  (This is nothing new.  It’s been ongoing since the inception of “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP on December 16, 2008.)  President Obama would never allow his patrons on Wall Street to have such an opportunity “stolen” from them by the American taxpayers.  Banking industry lobbyists would start swarming all over Capitol Hill carrying briefcases filled with money if any serious effort to undertake such a plan reached the discussion stage.  At this point, you might suspect that the grifters on the Hill could have a scheme underway:  Make a few noises about following Baker’s suggestion and wait for the lobbyists to start sharing the love.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be left to suffer the consequences of our government’s failure to raise the debt ceiling.


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Obama And The TARP

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I always enjoy it when a commentator appearing on a talk show reminds us that President Obama has become a “tool” for the Wall Street bankers.  This theme is usually rebutted with the claim that the TARP bailout happened before Obama took office and that he can’t be blamed for rewarding the miscreants who destroyed our economy.  Nevertheless, this claim is not entirely true.  President Bush withheld distribution of one-half of the $700 billion in TARP bailout funds, deferring to his successor’s assessment of the extent to which the government should intervene in the banking crisis.  As it turned out, during the final weeks of the Bush Presidency, Hank Paulson’s Treasury Department declared that there was no longer an “urgent need” for the TARP bailouts to continue.  Despite that development, Obama made it clear that anyone on Capitol Hill intending to get between the banksters and that $350 billion was going to have a fight on their hands.  Let’s jump into the time machine and take a look at my posting from January 19, 2009 – the day before Obama assumed office:

On January 18, Salon.com featured an article by David Sirota entitled:  “Obama Sells Out to Wall Street”.  Mr. Sirota expressed his concern over Obama’s accelerated push to have immediate authority to dispense the remaining $350 billion available under the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout:

Somehow, immediately releasing more bailout funds is being portrayed as a self-evident necessity, even though the New York Times reported this week that “the Treasury says there is no urgent need” for additional money.  Somehow, forcing average $40,000-aires to keep giving their tax dollars to Manhattan millionaires is depicted as the only “serious” course of action.  Somehow, few ask whether that money could better help the economy by being spent on healthcare or public infrastructure.  Somehow, the burden of proof is on bailout opponents who make these points, not on those who want to cut another blank check.

Discomfort about another hasty dispersal of the remaining TARP funds was shared by a few prominent Democratic Senators who, on Thursday, voted against authorizing the immediate release of the remaining $350 billion.  They included Senators Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington).  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Earlier last week, Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed.  The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At this juncture, Obama is engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the next $350 billion will not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Of course, we all know how that worked out  .   .   .  another Obama promise bit the dust.

The new President’s efforts to enrich the Wall Street banks at taxpayer expense didn’t end with TARP.  By mid-April of 2009, the administration’s “special treatment” of those “too big to fail” banks was getting plenty of criticism.  As I wrote on April 16 of that year:

Criticism continues to abound concerning the plan by Turbo Tim and Larry Summers for getting the infamous “toxic assets” off the balance sheets of our nation’s banks.  It’s known as the Public-Private Investment Program (a/k/a:  PPIP or “pee-pip”).

*   *   *

One of the harshest critics of the PPIP is William Black, an Economics professor at the University of Missouri.  Professor Black gained recognition during the 1980s while he was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).

*   *   *

I particularly enjoyed Black’s characterization of the PPIP’s use of government (i.e. taxpayer) money to back private purchases of the toxic assets:

It is worse than a lie.  Geithner has appropriated the language of his critics and of the forthright to support dishonesty.  That is what’s so appalling — numbering himself among those who convey tough medicine when he is really pandering to the interests of a select group of banks who are on a first-name basis with Washington politicians.

The current law mandates prompt corrective action, which means speedy resolution of insolvencies.  He is flouting the law, in naked violation, in order to pursue the kind of favoritism that the law was designed to prevent.  He has introduced the concept of capital insurance, essentially turning the U.S. taxpayer into the sucker who is going to pay for everything.  He chose this path because he knew Congress would never authorize a bailout based on crony capitalism.

Although President Obama’s hunt for Osama bin Laden was a success, his 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 – became Obama’s own “Tora Bora moment”, at which point he allowed economic recovery to continue on its elusive path away from us.  Economist Steve Keen recently posted this video, explaining how Obama’s failure to promote an effective stimulus program has guaranteed us something worse than a “double-dip” recession:  a quadruple-dip recession.

Many commentators are currently discussing efforts by Republicans to make sure that the economy is in dismal shape for the 2012 elections so that voters will blame Obama and elect the GOP alternative.  If Professor Keen is correct about where our economy is headed, I can only hope there is a decent Independent candidate in the race.  Otherwise, our own “lost decade” could last much longer than ten years.


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An Army Of Lobbyists For The Middle Class

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Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke appeared before the Senate Banking Committee this week to testify about the Fed’s monetary policy.  Scot Kersgaard of The American Independent focused our attention on a five-minute exchange between Colorado Senator Michael Bennett and The Ben Bernank, with an embedded video clip.  Senator Bennett asked Bernanke to share his opinions concerning the recommendations made by President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission.  Bernanke initially attempted to dodge the question with the disclaimer that the Fed’s authority extends to only monetary policy rather than fiscal policy – such as the work conducted by the deficit commission.  If Congressman Ron Paul had been watching the hearing take place, I’m sure he had a good, hard laugh at that statement.  Nevertheless, Bernanke couldn’t restrain himself from concurring with the effort to place the cost of Wall Street’s larceny on the backs of middle-class taxpayers.

The chant for “entitlement reform” continues to reverberate throughout the mainstream media as it has for the past year.  Last May, economist Dean Baker exposed this latest effort toward upward wealth redistribution:

Emboldened by the fact that none of them have gone to jail for their role in the financial crisis, the Wall Street gang is now gunning for Social Security and Medicare, the country’s most important safety net programs. Led by investment banker Pete Peterson, this crew is spending more than a billion dollars to convince the public that slashing these programs is the only way to protect our children and grandchildren from poverty.

A key propaganda tactic used by the “entitlement reform” crusaders is to characterize Social Security as an “entitlement” even though it is not (as I discussed here).  Phil Davis, avowed capitalist and self-described “serial entrepreneur”, wrote a great essay, which refuted the claim that Social Security is “broken” while explaining why it is not an “entitlement”.  Unfortunately, there are very few politicians who are willing to step forward to provide the simple explanation that Social Security is not an entitlement.  Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently made a statement to that effect before a senior citizens’ group in East Haven, Connecticut – without really providing an explanation why it is not an entitlement.  Susan Feiner wrote a great commentary on the subject last fall for womensenews.org.  Here is some of what she said:

Moreover, Social Security is not an entitlement program as it’s paid for entirely by payroll taxes.  It is an insurance program, not an entitlement. Not one penny of anyone’s Social Security comes out of the federal government’s general fund.

Social Security is, by law, wholly self-financing.  It has no legal authority to borrow, so it never has.

If this incredibly successful and direly needed program hasn’t ever borrowed a dime, why is the president and his hand-picked commissioners putting Social Security cuts (and/or increases in the retirement age) in the same sentence as deficit reduction?

The attempt to mischaracterize Social Security as an “entitlement” is not a “Right vs. Left” dispute —  It’s a class warfare issue.  There have been commentaries from across the political spectrum emphasizing the same fact:  Social Security is not an “entitlement”.  The assertion has appeared on the conservative patriotsteaparty.net website, the DailyKos on the Left and in a piece by independent commentator, Marti Oakley.

The battle for “entitlement reform” is just one front in the larger war being waged by Wall Street against the middle class.  Kevin Drum discussed this conflict in a recent posting at his Plutocracy Now blog for Mother Jones:

It’s about the loss of a countervailing power robust enough to stand up to the influence of business interests and the rich on equal terms.  With that gone, the response to every new crisis and every new change in the economic landscape has inevitably pointed in the same direction.  And after three decades, the cumulative effect of all those individual responses is an economy focused almost exclusively on the demands of business and finance.  In theory, that’s supposed to produce rapid economic growth that serves us all, and 30 years of free-market evangelism have convinced nearly everyone — even middle-class voters who keep getting the short end of the economic stick — that the policy preferences of the business community are good for everyone.  But in practice, the benefits have gone almost entirely to the very wealthy.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch made this observation on March 1:

Wall Street’s corrupt banks have lost their moral compass … their insatiable greed has become a deadly virus destroying its host nation … their campaign billions buy senate votes, stop regulators’ actions, manipulate presidential decisions.  Wall Street money controls voters, runs America, both parties.  Yes, Wall Street is bankrupting America.

Wake up America, listen:

  • “Our country is bankrupt.  It’s not bankrupt in 30 years or five years,” warns economist Larry Kotlikoff, “it’s bankrupt today.”
  • Economist Peter Morici:  “Capitalism is broken, America’s government is two bankrupt political parties bankrupting the country.”
  • David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director:  “If there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians” the “tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.”
  • BusinessWeek recently asked analyst Mary Meeker to run the numbers.  How bad is it? America really is bankrupt, with a “net worth of a negative $44 trillion.” Bankrupt.

And it will get worse.  Unfortunately, nothing can stop America’s self-destructive Wall Street bankers.  They simply do not care that their “doomsday capitalism” is destroying themselves from within, and is bankrupting America too.

On February 21, I quoted a statement made by bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO, which included this thought:

America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.

That essay by Bill Gross became the subject of an article by Terrence Keeley of Bloomberg News.  Mr. Keeley’s reaction to the suggestions made by Bill Gross was this:

To redeem Wall Street’s soul, radical solutions are clearly needed, but advocating the eradication of profit-based markets that have served humanity well on balance without a viable replacement is fanciful. Gross deserves an “A” for intent — but something more practical than a “heart transplant” is required to restore trust and efficacy to our banking system.

*   *   *

But an economy based on something other than profit risks misery and injustice of another sort.  The antibodies now needed aren’t those that negate profitability.  Rather, they are the ones that bind financial engineering to value creation and advancement of society.

Perhaps the most constructive solution to the problem is my suggestion from February 10:  Recruit and employ an army of lobbyists to represent and advance the interests of the middle class on Capitol Hill.  Some type of non-partisan, “citizens’ lobby” could be created as an online community.  Once its lobbying goals are developed and articulated, an online funding drive would begin.  The basic mission would be to defend middle-class taxpayers from the tyranny of the plutocracy that is destroying not just the middle class – but the entire nation.  Fight lobbyists with lobbyists!


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Jeremy Grantham And Ike

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As an avid reader of Jeremy Grantham’s Quarterly Letter, I was surprised when he posted a Special Topic report on January 14 — so close to release of his Fourth Quarter 2010 Letter, which is due in a couple of weeks.  At a time when many commentators are focused on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s historic Inaugural Address, Jeremy Grantham has taken the opportunity to focus on President Dwight Eisenhower’s Farwell Address of January 17, 1961.  (Grantham included the full text of Ike’s Farwell Address at the conclusion of the Special Topic essay.)

One passage from Ike’s Farwell Address seemed particularly prescient in the wake of the TARP bailout (which was not a success) and the “backdoor bailouts” including the Maiden Lanes (which were never to be repaid) as well as the cost of approximately $350 billion per year to investors and savers, resulting from the Federal Reserve’s zero-interest-rate-policy (often referred to as “ZIRP”).  Keep those Wall Street bailouts in mind while reading this passage from Ike’s speech:

Crises there will continue to be.  In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.  A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research – these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration:  the need to maintain balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.  Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.

In his Special Topic report, Jeremy Grantham focused on the disappointing changes that caused Ike’s America to become 21st Century America.  After quoting Ike’s now-famous admonition about the power of the military-industrial complex (for which the speech is frequently quoted) Grantham pointed out that the unrestricted influence of corporate power over our government has become a greater menace:

Unfortunately, the political-economic power problem has mutated away from the military, although it has left important vestiges there, toward a broader problem:  the undue influence of corporate America on the government, and hence the laws, taxes, and social policies of the country. This has occurred to such a degree that there seems little real independence in Congress, with most Congressmen answering first to the desire to be reelected and the consequent need to obtain funding from, shall we say, sponsors, and the need to avoid making powerful enemies.

*   *   *

The financial resources of the carbon-based energy companies are particularly terrifying, and their effective management of propaganda goes back decades.  They established and funded “independent” think tanks and even non-profit organizations that have mysteriously always come out in favor of policies favorable to maintaining or increasing the profits of their financial supporters.  The campaign was well-organized and has been terrifyingly effective.

*   *   *

The financial industry, with its incestuous relationships with government agencies, runs a close second to the energy industry.  In the last 10 years or so, their machine, led by the famously failed economic consultant Alan Greenspan – one of the few businessmen ever to be laughed out of business – seemed perhaps the most effective.  It lacks, though, the multi-decadal attitude-changing propaganda of the oil industry.  Still, in finance they had the “regulators,” deregulating up a storm, to the enormous profit of their industry.

Grantham concluded his report with a suggestion for the greatest tribute we could give Eisenhower after America ignored Ike’s warnings about the vulnerability of our government to unrestricted influences.  Grantham’s proposed tribute to Ike would be our refusal to “take this 50-year slide lying down”.

To steal a slogan from the Tea Party, I suggest the voters need to “take America back” from the corporations which bought off the government.  Our government has every intention of maintaining the status quo.

In the 2010 elections, voters were led to believe that they could bring about governmental reform by voting for candidates who will eventually prove themselves as protectors of the wealthy at the expense of the disappearing middle class.  In the 2008 elections, Barack Obama convinced voters that he was the candidate of change they could believe in.  In the real world of 2011, economist Simon Johnson explained what sort of “change” those voters received, as exemplified by the President’s appointment of his new Chief of Staff:

Let’s be honest.  With the appointment of Bill Daley, the big banks have won completely this round of boom-bust-bailout.  The risk inherent to our financial system is now higher than it was in the early/mid-2000s.  We are set up for another illusory financial expansion and another debilitating crisis.

Bill Daley will get it done.

Just as Jeremy Grantham explained how Eisenhower’s concerns about the military-industrial complex were materialized in the form of a corporate-controlled government, another unholy alliance was discussed by Charles Ferguson, director of the documentary film, Inside Job.  Ferguson recently offered an analysis of the milieu that resulted in President Obama’s appointment of Larry Summers as Director of the National Economic Council.  As Larry Summers announced plans to move on from that position, Ferguson explained how Summers had been granted the opportunity to inflict his painful legacy upon us:

Summers is unique but not alone.  By now we are all familiar with the role of lobbying and campaign contributions, and with the revolving door between industry and government.  What few Americans realize is that the revolving door is now a three-way intersection.  Summers’ career is the result of an extraordinary and underappreciated scandal in American society:  the convergence of academic economics, Wall Street, and political power.

America needs new leaders who refuse to capitulate to the army of lobbyists on Capitol Hill.  Where are they?


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Screw The People And Save The Banks

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The economic crisis in Ireland (and the rest of Europe) has resulted in a morass of published commentaries, some of which make sense and most of which don’t.  Sometimes it appears as though the writer hasn’t really formed an opinion on the issue, even though the tone of the article seems to be expressing one.  The problem experienced in Ireland is the same as it is everywhere else:  During tough economic times, governments always choose to bail out the banks regardless of the expense and suffering to be endured by the citizens.  The Pragmatic Capitalist recently upbraided the writer of one of the more poorly-thought-out essays dealing with the Irish predicament:

Sheila Bair, the head of the FDIC, has remained one of the more levelheaded and helpful leaders during the financial crisis.  But in an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning she took a decisive turn for the worse when she waded into waters that were certain to drown her.  Bair is now echoing the cries that have been heard across Ireland for the last 2 years – cries of fiscal austerity.  Of course, the USA is nothing like Ireland and has an entirely different monetary system, but Bair ignores all of this (in fact proves she is entirely ignorant of this).  What’s sad is that Bair clearly understands that this crisis is still largely hurting Main Street America   .   .   .

To the extent that the Irish situation bears any resemblance to what we are experiencing (or may soon experience) in the United States, economist John Hussman has written the best essay on this issue.  Hussman began with this point, made by another economist:

“If you have bad banks then you very urgently want to clean up your banks because bad banks go only one way:  they get worse. In the end every bank is a fiscal problem.  When you have bad banks, it is in a political environment where it is totally understood that the government is going to bail them out in the end.  And that’s why they are so bad, and that’s why they get worse.  So cleaning up the banks is an essential counterpart of any attempt to have a well functioning economy.  It is a counterpart of any attempt to have a dull, uninteresting macroeconomy.  And there is no excuse to do it slowly because it is very expensive to postpone the cleanup.  There is no technical issue in doing the cleanup.  It’s mostly to decide to start to grow up and stop the mess.”

MIT Economist Rudiger Dornbusch, November 1998

The TARP bailout was not the only time when our government chose a temporary fix (as in cure or heroin injection) at great taxpayer expense.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  John Hussman discussed the consequences:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The present situation

Europe will clearly be in the spotlight early this week, as a run on Irish banks coupled with large fiscal deficits has created a solvency crisis for the Irish government itself and has been (temporarily) concluded with a bailout agreement.  Ireland’s difficulties are the result of a post-Lehman guarantee that the Irish government gave to its banking system in 2008.  The resulting strains will now result in a bailout, in return for Ireland’s agreement to slash welfare payments and other forms of spending to recipients that are evidently less valuable to society than bankers.

*   *   *

Over the short run, Ireland will promise “austerity” measures like Greece did – large cuts in government spending aimed at reducing the deficit.  Unfortunately, imposing austerity on a weak economy typically results in further economic weakness and a shortfall on the revenue side, meaning that Ireland will most probably face additional problems shortly anyway.

The “austerity” approach is more frequently being used as a dividing line to distinguish “liberal” economists from “conservative” economists.  The irony here is that many so-called liberal politicians are as deeply in the pocket of the banking lobby as their conservative counterparts.  Economist Dean Baker recently wrote an article for The Guardian, urging Ireland to follow the example of Argentina and simply default on its debt:

The failure of the ECB or IMF to take steps to rein in the bubble before the crisis has not made these international financial institutions shy about using a heavy hand in imposing conditions now.  The plan is to impose stiff austerity, requiring much of Ireland’s workforce to suffer unemployment for years to come as a result of the failure of their bankers and the ECB.

While it is often claimed that these institutions are not political, only the braindead could still believe this.  The decision to make Ireland’s workers, along with workers in Spain, Portugal, Latvia and elsewhere, pay for the recklessness of their country’s bankers is entirely a political one.  There is no economic imperative that says that workers must pay; this is a political decision being imposed by the ECB and IMF.

Bloomberg News columnist, Matthew Lynn wrote a great article for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, setting out five reasons why Ireland should refuse a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to opt for default as the logical approach.

Pay close attention to how your favorite politicians weigh-in on the Irish situation.  It should give you a fairly good tip as to what actions those pols can be expected to take when the Wall Street bankers dash back to Capitol Hill for TARP 2 The Sequel.


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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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In Pursuit Of The TARP Thieves

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February 12, 2009

On Wednesday, February 11, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a subject of concern to many taxpayers: “The Need for Increased Fraud Enforcement in the Wake of the Economic Downturn”.  With trillions of dollars being expended in bailouts while the corporate beneficiaries of this government largesse allow their executives to line their pockets with those very dollars, the outrage felt by the working (or unemployed) public has found its way to Capitol Hill.  What we learned from this hearing is that there is plenty of fraud taking place while the FBI and other branches of law enforcement are understaffed to cope with the immense rise in reported fraud cases.

The Committee heard testimony from John Pistole, Deputy Director of the FBI.  Pistole explained how the current economic crisis resulted in numerous areas of FBI scrutiny, only one of which is the overwhelming subject of mortgage fraud:

For example, current market conditions have helped reveal numerous mortgage fraud, Ponzi schemes and investment frauds, such as the Bernard Madoff alleged scam. These schemes highlight the need for law enforcement and regulatory agencies to be ever vigilant of White Collar Crime both in boom and bust years.

The FBI has experienced and continues to experience an exponential rise in mortgage fraud investigations. The number of open FBI mortgage fraud investigations has risen from 881 in fiscal year 2006 to more than 1,600 in fiscal year 2008. In addition, the FBI has more than 530 open corporate fraud investigations, including 38 corporate fraud and financial institution matters directly related to the current financial crisis. These corporate and financial institution failure investigations involve financial statement manipulation, accounting fraud and insider trading. The increasing mortgage, corporate fraud, and financial institution failure case inventory is straining the FBI’s limited White Collar Crime resources.

The most disgusting activity covered during this hearing concerned fraud related to the ongoing $700 billion TARP bailout.  Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) provided testimony concerning his plans to establish a mechanism for bringing TARP thieves to justice:

The SIGTARP Hotline is operational and can be accessed through the SIGTARP website at www.SIGTARP.gov by telephone at (877) SIG-2009, as well as through email. Plans are being formulated to develop a “fraud awareness program” with the objective of informing potential whistleblowers of the many ways available to them to provide key information to SIGTARP on fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds, and explaining how they will be protected.

Mr. Barofsky’s testimony was largely a plea for passage of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) as well as the SAFE Markets Act, sponsored by Senators Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Richard Shelby (R., Ala.).  The latter bill would authorize hiring of the following personnel to investigate and prosecute “fraud relating to the financial markets”:  500 FBI agents, 50 Assistant United States Attorneys and 100 additional Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement staff members.  Mr. Barofsky’s explanation of the need for this legislation was an illustration of using “experience as our guide”:

Now, with $700 billion going out the door under TARP, additional hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of credit being provided through the Federal Reserve, and additional hundreds of billions through the proposed stimulus bill, we stand on the precipice of the largest infusion of Government funds over the shortest period of time in our Nation’s history.  Unfortunately, history teaches us that an outlay of so much money in such a short period of time will inevitably draw those seeking to profit criminally.  One need not look further than the recent outlay for Hurricane relief, Iraq reconstruction, or the not-so-distant efforts of the RTC as important lessons.

The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (S 386) addresses TARP fraud, fraud related to economic stimulus funds, mortgage fraud and fraudulent activities in the commodities markets.  The measure will:

  • Amend the definition of “financial institution” to extend federal fraud laws to mortgage lending business not directly regulated or insured by the Federal government.
  • Amend the major fraud statute to protect funds expended under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the economic stimulus package.
  • Authorize funding to hire fraud prosecutors and investigators at the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies, and authorize funding for U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to help staff FBI mortgage fraud task forces.
  • Amend the federal securities statute to cover fraud schemes involving commodities futures and options.
  • Amend the criminal money laundering statute to make clear that the proceeds of specified unlawful activity include the gross receipts of the illegal activity, and not just the profits of the activity.
  • Improve the False Claims Act to clarify that the Act was intended to extend to any false or fraudulent claim for government money or property, whether or not the claim is presented to a government official or employee, whether or not the government has physical custody of the money, and whether or not the defendant specifically intended to defraud the government.

Once these new measures are implemented, I would love to see the Feds bust those miscreants whom I (and others) suspect were manipulating the equities markets with TARP money in the month after Thanksgiving.  During that time, we saw an almost-daily spate of “late day rallies” when stock prices would be run up during the last fifteen minutes of the trading day, before those numbers could have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them. The inflated “closing prices” for the day were then perceived as the market value of the stocks.  This process was taking place despite the constant flow of dire news reports, which would normally have sent stock prices tumbling.  News services covering the action on Wall Street were using the same three words to start each day’s headline:  “Stocks rally despite …”  This pattern ceased as legislators and commentators demanded to know what was being done with the first $360 billion of TARP money.  Hmmm . . .

At this point, we can only speculate as to who has been pilfering TARP money and what could have been done with a few billion here and a few billion there.  Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we will be watching movies about the sleazoids who stole money intended to save the world economic system from ruin.

No Jews Allowed In Rick Warren’s Heaven

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December 22, 2008

There has been quite a bit of attention focused on Barack Obama’s choice of conservative evangelical minister, Rick Warren, to deliver the invocation at the Presidential inauguration ceremony on January 20.  Most of the outrage over that choice stems from the fact that Warren was actively involved in promoting Proposition 8, the controversial California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriages.

A large number of objections to Warren’s participation in this historic ceremony are coming from Hollywood.  As Tina Daunt reported in the December 20 Los Angeles Times, the entertainment community’s reaction to Warren’s role in the inaugural was “swift, angry and bitter”.  Her article quoted Hollywood publicist, Howard Bragman who said the following about Barack Obama:

“What he didn’t realize was how much untapped energy there was in the gay and lesbian community because of the passage of Prop. 8,” said Bragman. “Obama didn’t realize, after all the support he got from the gay and lesbian community, we feel betrayed right now.”

Meanwhile, back at the nation’s capitol, Barney Frank, the openly gay Senator from Massachusetts, had much to say about Warren’s role in the inaugural ceremony.  As Jason Blum reported on December 21 at the Bloomberg website, Senator Frank said this about the inclusion of Warren in the event:

“Giving that kind of mark of approval and honor to someone who has frankly spoken in ways I and many others have found personally very offensive, I thought that was a mistake for the president-elect to do.”

I particularly enjoyed the piece written by Christopher Hitchens for Slate on December 19.  I thought the televangelist lobby would have been run out of Washington in the wake of the 2008 elections.  Chris Hitchens appears to be sharing my disappointment over that group’s enduring presence on Capitol Hill, despite the efforts of many to preserve the separation of church and state.  The most impressive point made in this article concerned Warren’s insistence that there are no Jews allowed in heaven:

It is a fact that Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., was present at a meeting of the Aspen Institute not long ago and was asked by Lynda Resnick — she of the pomegranate-juice dynasty — if a Jew like herself could expect to be admitted to paradise.  Warren publicly told her no.

Similarly, Time magazine’s Joe Klein had this to say in his December 16 posting on his Swampland blog at Time.com, concerning Warren’s insistence that Jews can’t go to heaven:

I am not a big fan of Rick Warren’s.  He thinks I’m going to hell.  He said so in mixed company, at an Aspen Institute forum.  He was asked if Jews were going to hell.  He said yes.  He can go ahead and feed every poor child in Africa and I’m still going to think he’s a fool for believing that.  Reverend Rick is also not too big on gay or women’s rights.  (Indeed, if Jews–and all other non born-again Christians–homosexuals, feminists, and anyone who has either had an abortion, performed an abortion or reluctantly agrees that it’s none of our business who has abortions  …  if all those people are going to hell, then heaven’s got to be about as interesting as linoleum.)

Regardless of the controversies over Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage, is it really appropriate to have a man deliver the invocation at the Presidential inauguration ceremony, when that man professes that Jews are not allowed into heaven?  Does Warren believe that there is a big “No Jews Allowed” sign at the pearly gates?  Has heaven been getting away with something that American country clubs have not been able to do, since the 1970s?

There is obviously plenty wrong with having someone of Warren’s ilk speaking at the Presidential inauguration.  Gay weddings constitute just one of many issues these characters have on their list of things to not tolerate.  Chris Hitchens suggested three questions to be asked of the Obama transition team, before the inauguration proceeds:

— Will Warren be invited to the solemn ceremony of inauguration without being asked to repudiate what he has directly said to deny salvation to Jews?

— Will he be giving a national invocation without disowning what his mentor said about civil rights and what his leading supporter says about Mormons?

— Will the American people be prayed into the next administration, which will be confronted by a possible nuclear Iran and an already nuclear Pakistan, by a half-educated pulpit-pounder raised in the belief that the Armageddon solution is one to be anticipated with positive glee?

Remember John McCain’s old expression, “agents of intolerance”?  Who would have thought that one such agent would deliver the invocation when Barack Obama is sworn in as our next President?