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No Consensus About the Future

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As the election year progresses, we are exposed to wildly diverging predictions about the future of the American economy.  The Democrats are telling us that in President Obama’s capable hands, the American economy keeps improving every day – despite the constant efforts by Congressional Republicans to derail the Recovery Express.  On the other hand, the Republicans keep warning us that a second Obama term could crush the American economy with unrestrained spending on entitlement programs.  Meanwhile, in (what should be) the more sober arena of serious economics, there is a wide spectrum of expectations, motivated by concerns other than partisan politics.  Underlying all of these debates is a simple question:  How can one predict the future of the economy without an accurate understanding of what is happening in the present?  Before asking about where we are headed, it might be a good idea to get a grip on where we are now.  Nevertheless, exclusive fixation on past and present conditions can allow future developments to sneak up on us, if we are not watching.

Those who anticipate a less resilient economy consistently emphasize that the “rose-colored glasses crowd” has been basing its expectations on a review of lagging and concurrent economic indicators rather than an analysis of leading economic indicators.  One of the most prominent economists to emphasize this distinction is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Hussman’s most recent Weekly Market Comment contains what has become a weekly reminder of the flawed analysis used by the optimists:

On the economy, our broad view is based on dozens of indicators and multiple methods, and the overall picture is much better described as a modest rebound within still-fragile conditions, rather than a recovery or a clear expansion.  The optimism of the economic consensus seems to largely reflect an over-extrapolation of weather-induced boosts to coincident and lagging economic indicators — particularly jobs data.  Recall that seasonal adjustments in the winter months presume significant layoffs in the retail sector and slow hiring elsewhere, and therefore add back “phantom” jobs to compensate.

Hussman’s kindred spirit, Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI), has been criticized for the predictiction he made last September that the United States would fall back into recession.  Nevertheless, the ECRI reaffirmed that position on March 15 with a website posting entitled, “Why Our Recession Call Stands”.  Again, note the emphasis on leading economic indicators – rather than concurrent and lagging economic indicators:

How about forward-looking indicators?  We find that year-over-year growth in ECRI’s Weekly Leading Index (WLI) remains in a cyclical downturn . . .  and, as of early March, is near its worst reading since July 2009.  Close observers of this index might be understandably surprised by this persistent weakness, since the WLI’s smoothed annualized growth rate, which is much better known, has turned decidedly less negative in recent months.

Unlike the partisan political rhetoric about the economy, prognostication expressed by economists can be a bit more subtle.  In fact, many of the recent, upbeat commentaries have quite restrained and cautious.  Consider this piece from The Economist:

A year ago total bank loans were shrinking.  Now they are growing.  Loans to consumers have risen by 5% in the past year, which has accompanied healthy gains in car sales (see chart).  Mortgage lending was still contracting as of late 2011 but although house prices are still edging lower both sales and construction are rising.

*   *   *

At present just four states are reporting mid-year budget gaps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; this time last year, 15 did; the year before that, 36. State and local employment, which declined by 655,000 between August 2008 and last December – a fall of 3.3% – has actually edged up since.

*   *   *

Manufacturing employment, which declined almost continuously from 1998 through 2009, has since risen by nearly 4%, and the average length of time factories work is as high as at any time since 1945.  Since the end of the recession exports have risen by 39%, much faster than overall GDP.  Neither is as impressive as it sounds:  manufacturing employment remains a smaller share of the private workforce than in 2007, and imports have recently grown even faster than exports as global growth has faltered and the dollar has climbed.  Trade, which was a contributor to economic growth in the first years of recovery, has lately been a drag.

But economic recovery doesn’t have to wait for all of America’s imbalances to be corrected.  It only needs the process to advance far enough for the normal cyclical forces of employment, income and spending to take hold.  And though their grip may be tenuous, and a shock might yet dislodge it, it now seems that, at last, they have.

A great deal of enthusiastic commentary was published in reaction to the results from the recent round of bank stress tests, released by the Federal Reserve.  The stress test results revealed that 15 of the 19 banks tested could survive a stress scenario which included a peak unemployment rate of 13 percent, a 50 percent drop in equity prices, and a 21 percent decline in housing prices.  Time magazine published an important article on the Fed’s stress test results.  It was written by a gentleman named Christopher Matthews, who used to write for Forbes and the Financial Times.  (He is a bit younger than the host of Hardball.)  In a surprising departure from traditional, “mainstream media propaganda”, Mr. Matthews demonstrated a unique ability to look “behind the curtain” to give his readers a better idea of where we are now:

Christopher Whalen, a bank analyst and frequent critic of the big banks, penned an article in ZeroHedge questioning the assumptions, both by the Fed and the banks themselves, that went into the tests.  It’s well known that housing remains a thorn in the side of the big banks, and depressed real estate prices are the biggest risk to bank balance sheets.  The banks are making their own assumptions, however, with regards to the value of their real estate holdings, and Whalen is dubious of what the banks are reporting on their balance sheets. The Fed, he says, is happy to go along with this massaging of the data. He writes,

“The Fed does not want to believe that there is a problem with real estate. As my friend Tom Day wrote for PRMIA’s DC chapter yesterday:  ‘It remains hard to believe, on the face of it, that many of the more damaged balance sheets could, in fact, withstand another financial tsunami of the magnitude we have recenlty experienced and, to a large extent, continue to grapple with.’ ”

Even those that are more credulous are taking exception to the Fed’s decision to allow the banks to increase dividends and stock buybacks.  The Bloomberg editorial board wrote an opinion yesterday criticizing this decision:

 “Good as the stress tests were, they don’t mean the U.S. banking system is out of the woods.  Three major banks – Ally Financial Inc., Citigroup Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc. – didn’t pass, and investors still don’t have much faith in the reported capital levels of many of the rest.  If the Fed wants the positive results of the stress tests to last, it should err on the side of caution in approving banks’ plans to pay dividends and buy back shares – moves that benefit shareholders but also deplete capital.”

So there’s still plenty for skeptics to read into Tuesday’s report.  For those who want to doubt the veracity of the banks’ bookkeeping, you can look to Whalen’s report.  For those who like to question the Fed’s decision making, Bloomberg’s argument is as good as any.  But at the same time, we all know from experience that things could be much worse, and Tuesday’s announcement appears to be another in a string of recent good news that, unfortunately, comes packaged with a few caveats.  When all is said and done, this most recent test may turn out to be another small, “I think I can” from the little recovery that could.

When mainstream publications such as Time and Bloomberg News present reasoned analysis about the economy, it should serve as reminder to political bloviators that the only audience for the partisan rhetoric consists of “low-information voters”.  The old paradigm – based on campaign funding payola from lobbyists combined with support from low-information voters – is being challenged by what Marshall McLuhan called “the electronic information environment”.  Let’s hope that sane economic policy prevails.


 

Widespread Disappointment With Financial Reform

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Exactly one year ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade.  The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank bill – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public.  My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed.  I concluded the posting with this remark:

The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.

During the year since that posting, I felt a bit less misanthropic each time someone spoke out, wrote an article or made a presentation demonstrating that our government’s “financial reform” effort was nothing more than political theater.  Last July, Rich Miller of Bloomberg News reported that according to a Bloomberg National Poll, almost eighty percent of those surveyed expressed “just a little or no confidence” that the financial reform bill would make their financial assets more secure.  Forty-seven percent believed that the bill would do more to protect the financial industry than consumers.  The American public is not as dumb as most people claim!

This past week brought us three great perspectives on the worthlessness of our government’s financial reform facade.  I was surprised that the most impressive presentation came from a Fed-head!   Thomas M. Hoenig, President and CEO of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, gave a speech at New York University’s Stern School of Business, concerning the future of “systemically important financial institutions” or “SIFIs” and the Dodd-Frank Act.  (Bill Black prefers to call them “systemically dangerous institutions” or “SDIs”.)   After a great discussion of the threat these entities pose to our financial system and the moral hazard resulting from the taxpayer-financed “safety net”, which allows creditors of the SIFIs to avoid accountability for risks taken, Tom Hoenig focused on Dodd-Frank:

Following this financial crisis, Congress and the administration turned to the work of repair and reform.  Once again, the American public got the standard remedies – more and increasingly complex regulation and supervision.  The Dodd-Frank reforms have all been introduced before, but financial markets skirted them.  Supervisory authority existed, but it was used lightly because of political pressure and the misperceptions that free markets, with generous public support, could self-regulate.

Dodd-Frank adds new layers of these same tools, but it fails to employ one remedy used in the past to assure a more stable financial system – simplification of our financial structure through Glass-Steagall-type boundaries.  To this end, there are two principles that should guide our efforts to restore such boundaries.  First, institutions that have access to the safety net should be restricted to certain core activities that the safety net was intended to protect – making loans and taking deposits – and related activities consistent with the presence of the safety net.

Second, the shadow banking system should be reformed in its use of money market funds and short-term repurchase agreements – the repo market.  This step will better assure that the safety net is not ultimately called upon to bail them out in crisis.

Another engaging perspective on financial reform efforts came from Phil Angelides, who served as chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which conducted televised hearings concerning the causes of the financial crisis and issued its final report in January.  On June 27, Angelides wrote an article for The Washington Post wherein he discussed what caused the financial crisis, the current efforts to “revise the historical narrative” of what led to the economic catastrophe, as well as the efforts to undermine, subvert and repeal the meager reforms Dodd-Frank authorized.  Angelides didn’t pull any punches when he upbraided Congressional Republicans for conduct which the Democrats have been too timid (or complicit) to criticize:

If you are Rep. Paul Ryan, you ignore the fact that our federal budget deficit has ballooned more than $10 trillion annually since the financial collapse.  You disregard the reality that two-thirds of the deficit increase is directly attributable to the economic downturn and bipartisan fiscal measures adopted to bolster the economy.  Instead of focusing on the real cause of the deficit, you conflate today’s budgetary disaster with the long-term challenges of Medicare so you can shred the social safety net.

*   *   *

If you are most congressional Republicans, you turn a blind eye to the sad history of widespread lending abuses that savaged communities across the country and pledge to block the appointment of anyone to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless its authority is weakened.  You ignore the evidence of pervasive excess that wrecked our financial markets and attempt to cut funding for the regulators charged with curbing it.  Across the board, you refuse to acknowledge what went wrong and then try to stop efforts to make it right.

David Sirota wrote a great essay for Salon entitled, “America’s unique hatred of finance reform”.  Sirota illustrated how bipartisan efforts to undermine financial reform are turning America into – what The Daily Show with Jon Stewart called – “Sweden’s Mexico”:

On one hand, Europe’s politics of finance seem to be gradually moving in the direction of Sweden — that is, in the direction of growth and stability.  As the Washington Post reports, that Scandinavian country — the very kind American Tea Party types write off with “socialist” epithets — has the kind of economy the U.S. can now “only dream of:  growing rapidly, creating jobs and gaining a competitive edge (as) the banks are lending, the housing market booming (and) the budget is balanced.”  It has accomplished this in part by seriously regulating its banking sector after it collapsed in the 1990s.

*   *   *

After passing an embarrassingly weak financial “reform” bill that primarily cemented the status quo, the U.S. government is now delaying even the most minimal new rules that were included in the legislation.  At the same time, Senate Republicans are touting their plans to defund any new financial regulatory agencies; the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee has declared that “Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks” — not the other way around; and the Obama administration is now trying to force potential economic partners to accept financial deregulation as a consequence of bilateral trade deals.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign already looks like a contest between two factions of the same financial elite — a dynamic that threatens to make the 2012 extravaganza a contest to see which party can more aggressively suck up to the banks.

Any qualified, Independent political candidate, who is willing to step up for the American middle class and set out a plan of action to fight the financial industry as well as its lobbyists, would be well-positioned for a 2012 election victory.


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Obama On The Ropes

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You’ve been reading it everywhere and hearing it from scores of TV pundits:  The ongoing economic crisis could destroy President Obama’s hopes for a second term.  In a recent interview with Alexander Bolton of The Hill, former Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean warned that the economy is so bad that even Sarah Palin could defeat Barack Obama in 2012.  Dean’s statement was unequivocal:  “I think she could win.”

I no longer feel guilty about writing so many “I told you so” pieces about Obama’s failure to heed sane economic advice since the beginning of his term in the White House.  A chorus of commentators has begun singing that same tune.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I predicted that our new President would realize that his economic stimulus program was inadequate because he followed the advice from the wrong people.  After quoting the criticisms of a few economists who warned (in January and February of 2009) that the proposed stimulus would be insufficient, I said this:

Despite all these warnings, as well as a Bloomberg survey conducted in early February, revealing the opinions of economists that the stimulus would be inadequate to avert a two-percent economic contraction in 2009, the President stuck with the $787 billion plan.  He is now in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how and when he can roll out a second stimulus proposal.

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise – simply for the sake of compromise itself – is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform – should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.

Stephanie Kelton recently provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time, in a piece she published on William Black’s New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

*   *   *

In July 2009, I wrote a post entitled, “Gift-Wrapping the White House for the GOP.” In it, I said:

“If President Obama wants a second term, he must join the growing chorus of voices calling for another stimulus and press forward with an ambitious program to create jobs and halt the foreclosure crisis.”

With the recent announcement of Austan Goolsbee’s planned departure from his brief stint as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, much has been written about Obama’s constant rejection of the “dissenting opinions” voiced by members of the President’s economics team, such as those expressed by Goolsbee and his predecessor, Christina Romer.  Obama chose, instead, to paint himself into a corner by following the misguided advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Ezra Klein of The Washington Post recently published some excerpts from a speech (pdf) delivered by Professor Romer at Stanford University in May of 2011.  At one point, she provided a glimpse of the acrimony, which often arose at meetings of the President’s economics team:

Like the Federal Reserve, the Administration and Congress should have done more in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 to aid the recovery.  I remember that fall of 2009 as a very frustrating one.  It was very clear to me that the economy was still struggling, but the will to do more to help it had died.

There was a definite split among the economics team about whether we should push for more fiscal stimulus, or switch our focus to the deficit.  A number of us tried to make the case that more action was desperately needed and would be effective.  Normally, meetings with the President were very friendly and free-wheeling.  He likes to hear both sides of an issue argued passionately.  But, about the fourth time we had the same argument over more stimulus in front of him, he had clearly had enough.  As luck would have it, the next day, a reporter asked him if he ever lost his temper.  He replied, “Yes, I let my economics team have it just yesterday.”

By May of 2010, even Larry Summers was discussing the need for further economic stimulus measures, which I discussed in a piece entitled, “I Knew This Would Happen”.  Unfortunately, most of the remedies suggested at that time were never enacted – and those that were undertaken, fell short of the desired goal.  Nevertheless, Larry Summers is back at it again, proposing a new round of stimulus measures, likely due to concern that Obama’s adherence to Summers’ failed economic policies could lead to the President’s defeat in 2012.  Jeff Mason and Caren Bohan of Reuters reported that Summers has proposed a $200 billion payroll tax program and a $100 billion infrastructure spending program, which would take place over the next few years.  The Reuters piece also supported the contention that by 2010, Summers had turned away from the Dark Side and aligned himself with Romer in opposing Peter Orszag (who eventually took that controversial spin through the “revolving door” to join Citigroup):

During much of 2010, Obama’s economic advisers wrestled with a debate over whether to shift toward deficit reduction or pursue further fiscal stimulus.

Summers and former White House economist Christina Romer were in the camp arguing that the recession that followed the financial markets meltdown of 2008-2009 was a unique event that required aggressive stimulus to avoid a long period of stagnation similar to Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s.

Former White House budget director Peter Orszag was among those who cautioned against a further big stimulus, warning of the need to be mindful of ballooning budget deficits.

By the time voters head to the polls for the next Presidential election, we will be in Year Four of our own “lost decade”.  Accordingly, President Obama’s new “Jobs Czar” – General Electric CEO, Jeffrey Immelt – is busy discussing new plans, which will be destined to go up in smoke when Congressional Republicans exploit the opportunity to maintain the dismal status quo until the day arrives when disgruntled voters can elect President Palin.  Barack Obama is probably suffering from some awful nightmares about that possibility.


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A True Libertarian Steps Forward

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The Tea Party movement brought us more than a few Republicans who described themselves as “libertarian”, only to advance the agenda of the televangelist lobby once they were elected to office.  Beyond that, the “tax reform” they espouse applies only to corporations and the wealthy, with the middle class left to pay the difference to the Corporate Welfare State.

The 2012 Presidential campaign is now wide-open with the entry of an authentic libertarian, who has jumped into contention for the Republican nomination.  Although Ron Paul (a former Presidential nominee, representing the Libertarian Party in the 1988 election) has been receiving more than a little encouragement to make another White House bid (he won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference – CPAC) his age is a huge obstacle.  As Congressman Paul approaches his 76th birthday, many consider him too old for the job.

April 21 brought us the entry of Gary Johnson, a former Governor of New Mexico, into the race for the Republican Presidential Nomination.  At age 58, he is an active triathlete, who successfully climbed to the summit of Mt. Everest in 2003.  This guy brings loads of excitement into the race and is likely the only Republican who could defeat Barack Obama.  Gary Johnson’s support from outside the ranks of the Republican Party extends – not only to Independent voters – but to Democrats.  That’s right.  Gary Johnson could actually win the votes of a significant number of Democrats – something no other Republican could accomplish.  Republicans are going to have to take Johnson very seriously.  Nevertheless, Gary Johnson will surely make the televangelist lobby sick with his hardcore libertarian views.

Some recent articles about Johnson are the stuff of Bill O’Reilly’s worst nightmares.  For example, an April 20 piece by Christian Heinze for The Hill included this tidbit about the new candidate:

He’s running for the Republican presidential nomination on a platform that calls for withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq – a position that’s anathema to the party’s ruling class.  He also supports abortion rights and, most controversially, favors legalizing marijuana.

See what I mean?  Johnson has the guts to speak out for the changes which many Democratic voters would like to see – and which Barack Obama would never even bother to include among his trademark, false campaign promises.

Republican pundits regularly emphasize the importance of a candidate’s history of success in the business world, which is perhaps why they are now fretting that the party could be stuck with Donald Trump as its 2012 nominee.  Willard Romney’s inherited wealth gave him the opportunity to participate in the private equity business (Bain Capital) which he left in 1999 to become CEO of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.  As a result, Romney has been able to contrast that background against the qualifications of his political opponents, who have generally spent their adult lives at the public trough.  Gary Johnson presents a fresh challenge to Romney in the area of business credentials.  Johnson started his own construction business in the 1970s and became a self-made millionaire.

As a two-term Governor of New Mexico, Johnson didn’t hesitate to veto bills.  He used the veto pen more than 750 times and kept the state budget under control.

Johnson’s view of the 2012 budget proposed by Congressional Republicans is not likely to win him any new friends in the party’s establishment.  Here is what we learned from The Hill:

He claims the biggest threat to U.S. security is the nation’s debt, and to show how serious he is about fighting it, he says Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposed budget actually isn’t serious enough.

“It takes too long, and only get us a quarter of where we should be many years down the road,” he said.

One of the more informative essays about Gary Johnson was written by Niall Stanage for Salon on May 5, 2010.  That piece points out how Johnson doesn’t have much use for Rush Limbaugh or Jesus, which could cause him some trouble with the Republican base – many of whom have trouble differentiating between those two individuals.  Worse yet, the people at Fox News probably pulled out their hair after reading this:

Ask Johnson what he thinks of Barack Obama, for instance, and rather than the stream of vitriol that might issue semi-automatically from the lips of some party colleagues, he answers:  “You can’t help but like him.”

Obama, he says, “touched” him with his rhetoric during the 2008 campaign, though he adds that the president has proven disappointing and disingenuous since then.

After reading that remark, I was on the verge of giving Gary Johnson my unqualified endorsement.  Let’s see how he does on the campaign trail.

The 2012 Presidential race just became really interesting!


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Trouble Ahead For Congressional Democrats

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September 2, 2010

Quite a number of commentators have expressed shock in reaction to a recent Gallup Poll pitting a “generic Democrat” against a “generic Republican” for Congress.  As of August 30, the Democrat was trailing by a huge, 10-point margin (51% to 41%).  Gallup described it as “the largest in Gallup’s history of tracking the midterm generic ballot for Congress”.  An examination of the graph reveals that the hypothetical Democrat’s 49-43 lead in mid-July was lost approximately one week later.

There has been widespread speculation as to the cause of this reversal of fortune.  Byron York wrote a piece for The Washington Examiner, which considered a more recent Gallup Poll, pinpointing the particular issues where the Republican position was more popular.  Mr. York then provided his own opinions as to why and how the “generic Democrat” was faltering on some of these issues.  With respect to the economy, York said this:

In October 2006, Democrats held a 53 to 37 lead over Republicans on the issue.  Now, after Democrats passed an $862 billion stimulus bill and touted 2010 as the “summer of recovery,” Republicans hold a 49 to 38 lead.  Democrats have gone from having a 16 point lead to being 11 points behind.

As for the problem of corruption in government, York gave this interpretation of the polling results:

Back in ’06, a large majority — 51 percent to 28 percent — trusted Democrats more than Republicans to deal with the issue.  Now, with Democrats facing high-profile ethics proceedings in Congress, Republicans hold a 38 to 35 lead.

The subject of terrorism was another area where Mr. York offered his opinion on the public’s renewed preference for Republican stewardship:

Just before the ’06 elections, Democrats held a 47 to 42 lead on protecting against terrorism.  Now, after Ft. Hood, Detroit, and the Times Square bombing attempt, Republicans hold a 55 to 31 lead.

I have a different perspective on what has been motivating the voters to favor a “generic Republican” candidate.  Given the format of the poll, I believe the responses are rooted in archetypal motivations rather than the positions and actions of individual candidates on particular issues.  For example, consider the timing:  Late July was when President Obama was taking his umpteenth vacation and playing golf for the zillionth time.  Democrats from the Senate (more so than Congressional Dems) had just sold out to Wall Street by completely eviscerating the so-called, financial “reform” bill, making it as much of a farce as their healthcare “reform” artifice.  The two “reform” shams were widely perceived as a betrayal of the Democratic Party “base” by both houses of Congress as well as the Obama administration.  The aggregate impact of those two legislative hoaxes impacted the public’s understanding of the extent to which corruption and economic irresponsibility were apparent in their Democratic leaders.  I don’t believe it’s so much a problem with excessive spending (i.e. stimulus efforts) as it is with plain-old sleaziness.  “Countrywide Chris” Dodd’s skullduggery is more likely seen as a serious problem than the antics of Charlie Rangel and company.

President Obama’s inability to take a decisive position on anything – his constant attempts to travel up the fork in the road – are recognized as weak leadership, which is then reinforced as a trait of all Democrats.  The constant golfing and vacationing during this crucial period have helped augment the image of a dilettante — as well as an ineffective and/or unconcerned official.  As a result, voters are less confident that these leaders can protect them from terrorism.  When a terrorist succeeds, that event magnifies the perceived weakness, regardless of whether and how many other attempted terrorist schemes may have been thwarted under the current administration.

Meanwhile, pollster Nate Silver has come along to tell us that we’re all reading too much into those recent Gallup Polls.  In an article for The New York Times, Mr. Silver benefited the rest of us with his unique Brainiac perspective:

The reasons for the Democrats’ decline are, as we say in the business, overdetermined.  That is, there are no lack of hypotheses to explain it:  lots of causes for this one effect.  The economy?  Sure.  Unpopular legislation like health care?  Yep.  Some “bad luck” events like the Gulf Oil spill?  Mmm-hmm.  The new energy breathed into conservatives by the Tea Party movement?  Uh-huh.

And this hardly exhausts the theories.  An inexperienced White House that has sometimes been surprisingly inept at coping with the 24/7 news media cycle?  The poor optics associated with Democrats having had a filibuster-proof majority in theory, but not always in practice?  All of the above.

These causes can’t be so easily untangled on the basis of polling evidence; there’s really no basis on which to evaluate the competing hypotheses.  This is particularly so given that different types of political events aren’t isolated from one another — health care reform might have been unpopular, for instance, but the reason for its unpopularity may ultimately have been the economy.

For this reason, we can be skeptical of two types of analysis: claiming that Factor X definitely isn’t contributing to the Democrats’ troubles, and asserting that it definitely is.

Regardless of the cause, the Democrats are headed for serious trouble in November.  As far as I’m concerned:  It serves them right.




Money Falling From The Sky

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November 17, 2008

The debate concerning a possible bailout of the “big three” automakers (General Motors, Ford and Daimler Chrysler) has now reached the House of Representatives.  House Minority Leader, John Boehner (Republican from Ohio) has voiced his opposition to this latest bailout, indicating that it will not receive much support from Congressional Republicans.

In the words of Yogi Berra, we are experiencing “déjà vu all over again”.  This process started with the plan of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, to bail out banks and other financial intuitions holding mortgages of questionable value, at a price to the taxpayers in excess of $700 billion.  Back on September 22, when that bailout bill (now known as TARP) was being considered, Jackie Kucinich and Alexander Bolton wrote an article for TheHill.com, discussing Republican opposition to this measure.  Their article included a prophetic remark by Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns of Florida:

“Bailout after bailout is not a strategy,” said Stearns, who said that taxpayers could be left with a huge bill.

Yet, “bailout after bailout” is exactly where we are now.  On November 15, T-Bone Pickings appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press.  Tom Brokaw asked T-Bone Pickings for his opinion on the proposed “Big Three Bailout”.  The response was:

I wonder what you’re going to do about the next industry.  Is it going to be the airlines or what if Toyota and Honda want some help, too?  I don’t know.  I don’t know where it stops.

Once again, we are presented with the need to bail out yet another American industry considered “too big to fail”.  However, this time, we are not being asked to save an entire industry, just a few players who fought like hell, resisting every change from rear-view mirrors, to fuel injection, seat belts, catalytic converters, air bags and most recently, hybrid technology.  Later on Meet the Press, we heard the BBC’s Katty Kay quote a rhetorical question from unidentified “smart economists” that included the magic word:

Can it withstand the shock to the economy if GM were to go?

Later on the CBS program, Face The Nation, Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, used similar logic to that expressed by Katty Kay, when he stated:

When you talk about the negative shock that would result from bankruptcies of these companies, right now  …

The magic word “shock” is once again playing an important role for the advocates of this newest rescue package. I was immediately compelled to re-read my posting from September 22, concerning the introduction of the Paulson bailout plan, entitled:  “Here We Go Again”.  At that time, I discussed Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  Klein’s book explained how unpopular laws were enacted in a number of countries around the world, as a result of shock from disasters or upheavals.  She went on to suggest that some of these events were deliberately orchestrated with the intent of passing repugnant laws in the wake of crisis.  She made an analogy to shock therapy, wherein the patient’s mind is electrically reformatted to become a “blank slate”.  Klein described how advocates of “the shock doctrine” seek a cataclysmic destruction of economic order to create their own “blank slate” upon which to create their vision of a “free market economy”.  She described the 2003 Iraq war as the most thorough utilization of the shock doctrine in history.  Remember that this book was released a year before the crises we are going through now.

Ms. Klein’s article, “In Praise of a Rocky Transition” appeared in the December 1, 2008 issue of The Nation.  She discussed Washington’s handling of the Wall Street bailout, characterizing it as “borderline criminal”.  Would the financial rescue legislation (TARP) have passed if Congress and the public had been advised that the Federal Reserve had already fed a number of unnamed financial institutions two trillion dollars in emergency loans?  Naomi Klein expressed the need for the Obama Administration to stick with its mantra of “Change You Can Believe In” as opposed to any perceived need to soothe the financial markets:

There is no way to reconcile the public’s vote for change with the market’s foot-stomping for more of the same.  Any and all moves to change course will be met with short-term market shocks.  The good news is that once it is clear that the new rules will be applied across the board and with fairness, the market will stabilize and adjust.  Furthermore, the timing for this turbulence has never been better.  Over the past three months, we’ve been shocked so frequently that market stability would come as more of a surprise.  That gives Obama a window to disregard the calls for a seamless transition and do the hard stuff first.  Few will be able to blame him for a crisis that clearly predates him, or fault him for honoring the clearly expressed wishes of the electorate.  The longer he waits, however, the more memories fade.

When transferring power from a functional, trustworthy regime, everyone favors a smooth transition.  When exiting an era marked by criminality and bankrupt ideology, a little rockiness at the start would be a very good sign.

The Obama Administration would be wise to heed Ms. Klein’s suggestions.  It would also help to seriously consider the concerns of Republicans such as John Boehner, who is apparently not anxious to feed America another “crap sandwich”.

The Real Republicans Stand Up

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September 25, 2008

On Monday, September 22, the real Republicans in Congress stood up to the “bailout” plan, written by the Bush Administration and ratified by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.  As I wrote in my last posting, there has been a serious question as to whether the Democrats in Congress had the cajones to stand up to the Bush Administration’s proposed Seven Hundred Billion – to One Trillion Dollar bailout of those financial institutions holding fuzzy mortgages and mortgage-based securities.  The Administration’s plan, as originally written, gave autocratic authority to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson for administration of this plan, without oversight by the Courts or Congress.  At this point in the 2008 campaign, it has become time to give the well-deserved recognition to those Republican and/or conservative members of Congress as well as those conservative pundits, who put philosophy ahead of political allegiance and who spoke out for what they felt was right on this issue.  The Congressional Democrats alone, would have backed down and simpered away from a fight with the “lame duck” Bush Administration on this proposal.  Were it not for the intestinal fortitude and existential authenticity of the following individuals, Congress would have, once again, provided the “rubber stamp” for yet another, despotic Bush plan.

Before I congratulate them by name, let’s take a look back to the words of a great patriot, Thomas Paine.  This passage was the opening to an article called The Crisis, written on December 23, 1776.  His words are as important now as they were then:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

Accordingly, the following Republican members of Congress should be given their due congratulations for rising above political loyalty on this monumental issue:

House Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) who expressed skepticism about the Treasury Department’s proposal (last) Friday, saying he was “unconvinced that this is the proper remedy for our nation at this time.”  (This was reported by Jackie Kucinich and Alexander Bolton for TheHill.com on September 22.)

The article by Kucinich and Bolton also disclosed that:

In a statement Saturday, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former RSC chairman, came out against the idea of a government bailout.  “Congress must not hastily embrace a cure that may do more harm to our economy than the disease of bad debt,” he said.

The Kucinich/Bolton article went on to describe the action taken by Republican Congressman Scott Garrett of New Jersey:

In a “Dear Colleague” letter circulated on Monday, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) attached three articles written by economists at the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation and the University of Chicago that all offer alternatives to the administration’s plan.

“As in most cases, there is not just one solution to a public policy problem,” Garrett wrote.   “It is my hope that the ideas below will provide some interesting analysis to the problems faced by the U.S. financial markets and generate thoughtful debate as we consider this monumental legislative proposal.”

Last, but not least, was Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns of Florida, who took time out to chat with Rachael Maddow on Wednesday night.  Kucinich and Bolton noted how:

Florida Republican Cliff Stearns also criticized the proposal, which would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to buy mortgage-based assets from private firms.

“Bailout after bailout is not a strategy,” said Stearns, who said that taxpayers could be left with a huge bill.

Were it not for the integrity of these individuals, the Democratic Party’s opponents of the original Bush Plan would not have enjoyed a chance at challenging the Administration’s original draft bailout proposal.

While we’re at it  …  let’s give a pat on the back to one of  those bold conservatives, motivated by philosophy, rather than the televangelist lobby or the neocon trend:  George Will.  He has always been on my blogroll for a reason:  his opinions are often philosophy – based, rather than party – based.  Here’s what he had to say about the bailout plan in the Jewish World Review on September 23:

Treasury Secretary Paulson, asked about conservative complaints that his rescue program amounts to socialism, said, essentially: This is not socialism, this is necessary. That non sequitur might be politically necessary, but remember that government control of capital is government control of capitalism. Does McCain have qualms about this, or only quarrels?

What is the real motivation behind the McCain campaign’s proposed “time out”?  Is it because McCain’s campaign manager, (Jeffrey Dahmer look-alike) Rick Davis, as corporate Director and Treasurer of his lobbying firm: Davis Manafort, had been monthly collecting $15,000 from the vilified Freddie Mack, up until August?  Or is it because Sarah Palin had been caught on video, going through some strange ritual with avowed “witch hunter” Bishop Thomas Muthee at the Wasilla Assembly of God church?  I suspect it’s because McCain is lost in the woods without a compass, moral or otherwise.