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Wisconsin Bogeyman Will Help Obama

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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


More Favorable Reviews For Huntsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do applaud this from Huntsman:

RESTORING RULE OF LAW

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

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

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


 

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Here Comes Huntsman

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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GOP Unable To Wash Away Santorum

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After his disappointing loss to Michele Bachmann in the Iowa Straw Poll, Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty officially withdrew from the 2012 Presidential campaign.  Pawlenty finished third with 14% of the votes.  Bachmann picked up 28% and Congressman Ron Paul was right behind her with 27%.  Despite the fact that Rick Santorum finished fourth with a paltry 9.8%, the Pennsylvanian has not discussed abandoning his own Presidential bid.

Santorum has not held public office since his humiliating defeat in the 2006 election, at which point he lost his Senate seat to Democrat Bob Casey, Jr. by a 59%-41% margin – the worst defeat for an incumbent Senator since 1980.  One might assume that such a bidetory washout would forever purge Santorum from that zone within the Beltway.  Nevertheless, Santorum apparently believes he will have greater success with a national campaign in post-Tea Party America.

Strangely enough, Santorum’s fourth-place finish in the Ames Straw Poll is being spun as a victory.  Dan Hirschhorn reported for Politico that Santorum’s fourth-place showing helped grease the candidate’s fundraising efforts:

Still underfunded, the campaign enjoyed its strongest overnight online money haul in the hours after the straw poll, and is planning to step up its fundraising efforts in Pennsylvania, his financial home base after two Senate terms.

Nevertheless, as Daniel Larison discussed in The American Conservative, Santorum’s fourth-place finish was solely a result of the candidate’s persistent, lingering presence in Iowa:

The reality is that Santorum has been living and campaigning full-time in Iowa for weeks, he ought to be rallying social conservatives to him in much larger numbers than he does, and his fourth-place finish out of a field of six direct competitors is confirmation that his campaign is going nowhere.  Beating out Herman Cain and Thad McCotter on the ground does not mean much at all.  His presidential bid has always seemed to be a vain effort to re-fight the battles of his failed 2006 re-election campaign.

Michael Falcone of ABC News observed that Santorum “has been languishing near the bottom of national polls”.  The question remains as to whether a candidate, whose agenda is so tightly focused on conservative “values voters” could gain momentum in a campaign dominated by financial issues.  As George Will pointed out, Santorum has repeatedly emphasized that “… America’s debt crisis is, at bottom, symptomatic of a failure of self-control  …”

Dan Hirschhorn noted at the conclusion of his Politico report, that Santorum’s “end game” remains a mystery.  I suspect that Santorum’s true objective could be to secure the number two place on the Republican ticket as the GOP’s Vice-Presidential candidate.

It’s reasonable to assume that the presence of Santorum on the back end of the Republican ticket could provide their campaign with a frothy mixture of enthusiasm, including support from social conservatives who would not otherwise vote for a less-polarizing Presidential nominee.

Meanwhile, Santorum continues to swim upstream, while jumping down the throat of the hard right’s newest rising star, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who refused to advocate a relativistic interpretation of the Tenth Amendment.  Governor Perry provided this response to Santorum’s blast:

“You either have to believe in the 10th Amendment or you don’t,” Perry told reporters after a bill signing in Houston Wednesday.  “You can’t believe in the 10th Amendment for a few issues and then [for] something that doesn’t suit you say, ‘We’d rather not have states decide that.’”

You can probably see the problem exposed by this dust-up.  If the Republican Party can’t wash out Santorum, the remaining GOP Presidential hopefuls will begin to appear liberal.


 

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Inviting More Trouble

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I frequently revert to my unending criticism of President Obama for “punting” on the 2009 economic stimulus program.  The most recent example was my June 13 posting, wherein I noted how Stephanie Kelton provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time during the first month of Obama’s Presidency, 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.

As it turned out – that is exactly what happened.  Obama’s lack of leadership and his apologetic, half-assed use of government power to fight the recession has brought us to where we are today.  It may also bring Barack Obama and his family to a new address in January of 2013.

At this point, the “austerian” economists are claiming that the attenuated stimulus program’s failure to bring us more robust economic growth is “proof” that Keynesian economics “doesn’t work”.  The fact that many of these economists speak the way they do as a result of conflicts of interest – arising from the fact that they are on the payrolls of private firms with vested interests in maintaining the status quo – is lost on the vast majority of Americans.  Unfortunately, President Obama is not concerned with rebutting the arguments of these “hired guns”.  A recent poll by Bloomberg News revealed that the American public has successfully been fooled into believing that austerity measures could somehow revive our economy:

As the public grasps for solutions, the Republican Party is breaking through in the message war on the budget and economy.  A majority of Americans say job growth would best be revived with prescriptions favored by the party:  cuts in government spending and taxes, the Bloomberg Poll shows.  Even 40 percent of Democrats share that view.

*   *   *

Though Americans rate unemployment and the economy as a greater concern than the deficit and government spending, the issues are now closely connected.  Sixty-five percent of respondents say they believe the size of the federal deficit is “a major reason” the jobless rate hasn’t dropped significantly.

*   *   *

Republican criticism of the federal budget growth has gained traction with the public.  Fifty-five percent of poll respondents say cuts in spending and taxes would be more likely to bring down unemployment than would maintaining or increasing government spending, as Obama did in his 2009 stimulus package.

The voters are finally buying the corporatist propaganda that unemployment will recede if the government would just leave businesses alone. Forget about any government “hiring programs” – we actually need to fire more government employees!  With those annoying regulators off their backs, corporations would be free to hire again and bring us all to Ayn Rand heaven.  You are supposed to believe that anyone who disagrees with this or contends that government can play a role in job creation is a socialist.

Nevertheless, prominent individuals from the world of business and finance are making an effort to debunk these myths.  Bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO recently addressed the subject:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.  President Obama’s long-term budget makes just such a claim and Republican alternatives go many steps further.  Former Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota might be the Republicans’ extreme example, but his claim of 5% real growth based on tax cuts and entitlement reductions comes out of left field or perhaps the field of dreams.  The United States has not had a sustained period of 5% real growth for nearly 60 years.

Both parties, in fact, are moving to anti-Keynesian policy orientations, which deny additional stimulus and make rather awkward and unsubstantiated claims that if you balance the budget, “they will come.”  It is envisioned that corporations or investors will somehow overnight be attracted to the revived competitiveness of the U.S. labor market:  Politicians feel that fiscal conservatism equates to job growth.

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Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

Hedge fund manager, Barry Ritholtz discussed his own ideas for “Jump Starting the U.S. Economy” on his website, The Big Picture.  He concluded the piece by lamenting the fact that the federal debt/deficit debate is sucking all the air out of the room at the very time when people should be discussing job creation:

The focus on Deficits today is absurd, forcing us towards another 1938-type recession.  The time to reduce the government’s economic deficit and footprint is during a robust expansion, not during (or just after) major contractions.

During the de-leveraging following a credit crisis is the worst possible time to be deficit obsessed.

Don’t count on President Obama to say anything remotely similar to what you just read.  You would be expecting too much.


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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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Time For Another Victory Lap

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I’m no cheerleader for President Obama.  Since he first became our Disappointer-In-Chief, I have vigorously voiced my complaints about his decisions.  At the end of President Obama’s first month in office, I expressed concern that his following the advice of “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Larry Summers was putting the welfare (pun intended) of the Wall Street banks ahead of the livelihoods of those who voted for him.  I lamented that this path would lead us to a ten-year, Japanese-style recession.  By September of 2010, it was obvious that those early decisions by the new President would prove disastrous for the Democrats at the mid-term elections.  At that point, I repeated my belief that Obama had been listening to the wrong people when he decided to limit spending on the economic stimulus package to approximately half of what was necessary to end the economic crisis:

Even before the stimulus bill was signed into law, the administration had been warned, by way of an article in Bloomberg News, that a survey of fifty economists revealed that the proposed $787 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.

Last week, I was about to write a piece, describing that decision as “Obama’s Tora Bora moment”.  When I sat down at my computer just after 11 p.m. on Sunday, I realized that the timing wouldn’t have been appropriate for such a metaphor.  The President was about to make his historic speech, announcing that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  Just as many have criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the disaster in the Gulf of Corexit as “Obama’s Katrina Moment”, I believe that the President’s decision to “punt” on the stimulus – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  The consequences have been enormously expensive (simply adding the $600 billion cost of QE 2 alone to a better-planned stimulus program would have reduced our current unemployment level to approximately 5%).  Beyond that, the advocates of “Austerian” economics have scared everyone in Washington into the belief that the British approach is somehow the right idea – despite the fact that their economy is tanking.  Never mind the fact Australia’s stimulus program was successful and ended the recession in that country.

The Fox Ministry of Truth has brainwashed a good number of people into believing that Obama’s stimulus program (a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) was a complete failure.  You will never hear the Fox Ministry of Truth admit that prominent Republican economist Keith Hennessey, the former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, pointed out that the 2009 stimulus “increased economic growth above what it otherwise would have been”.  The Truth Ministry is not likely to concede that John Makin of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, published this statement at the AEI website:

Absent temporary fiscal stimulus and inventory rebuilding, which taken together added about 4 percentage points to U.S. growth, the economy would have contracted at about a 1 percent annual rate during the second half of 2009.

On the other hand, count me among those who are skeptical that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy can have any impact on our current unemployment crisis (it hasn’t yet).

Many of Obama’s critics have complained that the Presidential appearance at Ground Zero was an inappropriate “victory lap” – despite the fact that George W. Bush was invited to the event (although he declined).  Not only was that victory lap appropriate – Obama is actually entitled to run another.   As E.J. Dionne pointed out, the controversial “nationalization” of the American auto industry (what should have been done to the Wall Street banks) has become a huge success:

The actual headlines make the point. “Demand for fuel-efficient cars helps GM to $3.2 billion profit,” declared The Washington Post.  “GM Reports Earnings Tripled in First Quarter, as Revenue Jumped 15 Percent,” reported The New York Times.

*   *   *

“Having the federal government involved in every aspect of the private sector is very dangerous,” Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told Fox News in December 2008.  “In the long term it could cause us to become a quasi-socialist country.”  I don’t see any evidence that we have become a “quasi-socialist country,” just big profits.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the bailout “the leading edge of the Obama administration’s war on capitalism,” while other members of Congress derided the president’s auto industry task force.  “Of course we know that nobody on the task force has any experience in the auto business, and we heard at the hearing many of them don’t even own cars,” declared Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, after a hearing on the bailout in May 2009. “And they’re dictating the auto industry for our future? What’s wrong with this picture?”

*   *   *

In the case of the car industry, allowing the market to operate without any intervention by government would have wiped out a large part of the business that is based in Midwestern states.  This irreversible decision would have damaged the economy, many communities and tens of thousands of families.

And contrary to the predictions of the critics, government officials were quite capable of working with the market in restructuring the industry. Government didn’t overturn capitalism.  It tempered the market at a moment when its “natural” forces were pushing toward catastrophe. Government had the resources to buy the industry time.

In fairness, President Obama has finally earned some bragging rights, after punting on health care, the stimulus and financial “reform”.  He knows his Republican opponents will never criticize him for his own “Tora Bora moment” – because to do so would require an admission that a more expensive economic stimulus was necessary in 2009.  As a result, it will be up to an Independent candidate or a Democratic challenger to Obama (less likely these days) to explain that the persistent economic crisis – our own “lost decade” – lingers on as a result of Obama’s “Tora Bora moment”.


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Re-Make Re-Model

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Welcome to the new incarnation of TheCenterLane.com !

For a number of reasons, I changed to a new web host and switched over to a WordPress-based platform.  This was a big project and I am still in the process of updating links to my archived postings, as they may appear in pieces written before this changeover.  While doing this set-up, I found that WordPress resisted my initial efforts to have a two-tier blogroll with my favorite sites at the top, as was the case previously.  Nevertheless, having the list in alphabetical order makes it easier to find the links, so I’m inclined to leave it this way.

As I went through the blogroll, I gave some thought to bumping some sites and adding others.  When I came across the link to CenterMovement.org, I was reminded of something they said about this site:  that I was “not afraid of sounding radical at outrages to common sense”.  The concept of  “radical centrism” became the subject of a recent article by Gerald Seib at The Wall Street Journal.   Mr. Seib appeared to share my expectation that the rise of the Tea Party movement has inspired voters (and more importantly:  aspiring candidates) from all perspectives to escape from  the two-party trap.  Here are some of Seib’s points that resonated well with me:

Many of  those seriously estranged from the political system and its practitioners appear to sit in the political center.  They are shaping this year’s campaign, but equally important is the question of what happens to them after the election Nov. 2, and especially on the road toward the next presidential campaign in 2012.

*   *   *

Mostly they want solutions — economic and job-creating solutions — and they seem to think Democrats have failed to provide them.  They also thought that of  Republicans previously.  And they seem to think this failure to produce in Washington is, at least in some measure, the result of  both parties being in the thrall of  “special interests,” a term with various definitions.

Some of this frustration is being channeled into the tea-party movement, but not all of it by any means.  The tea-party movement is more conservative, and more Republican at heart, than many of these independent voters appear to be.

*   *   *

But perhaps the tea-party influence will push the Republican Party too far to the right for many of these independents.  And perhaps Mr. Obama will tack too far to the left in the next two years, to protect his liberal flank and preclude the possibility that he, like Jimmy Carter in 1980, faces a primary challenger from his party’s liberal base when he seeks re-election.

If that’s what happens after this year’s election, Washington may descend into true partisan and ideological gridlock, and independent voters’ frustration and estrangement may only grow.

Seib concluded that such a scenario could give rise to “a third-party challenge in 2012”.  As I have stated previously:  by 2012 I would hope to see a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth party, as well.

As I said when I first started this blog in April of 2008:  It’s an exciting time to be a centrist.  Since that point, we have seen a number of politicians claiming to be centrists, simply because their positions on most major political issues were constantly changing — in order to “follow the money”.  Claiming to be “pragmatists”, many of those politicians have been more than willing to horse-trade away any accomplishments made in advancing a particular cause for their supporters.  Unlike Gerald Seib, I believe that many “middle-of-the-road radicals” are peeved by the absolute lack of any ideological principles behind the actions taken by too many of those in government.  We can expect a number of diverse political groups to form after the 2010 elections.  Hopefully. the voters will have better alternatives next time around.



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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

Greg Gordon recently wrote a fantastic article for the McClatchy Newspapers, in which he discussed how former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to take any action to curb risky mortgage lending.  It should come as no surprise that Paulson’s nonfeasance in this area worked to the benefit of Goldman Sachs, where Paulson had presided as CEO for the eight years prior to his taking office as Treasury Secretary on July 10, 2006.  Greg Gordon’s article provided an interesting timeline to illustrate Paulson’s role in facilitating the subprime mortgage crisis:

In his eight years as Goldman’s chief executive, Paulson had presided over the firm’s plunge into the business of buying up subprime mortgages to marginal borrowers and then repackaging them into securities, overseeing the firm’s huge positions in what became a fraud-infested market.

During Paulson’s first 15 months as the treasury secretary and chief presidential economic adviser, Goldman unloaded more than $30 billion in dicey residential mortgage securities to pension funds, foreign banks and other investors and became the only major Wall Street firm to dramatically cut its losses and exit the housing market safely.  Goldman also racked up billions of dollars in profits by secretly betting on a downturn in home mortgage securities.

By now, the rest of that painful story has become a burden for everyone in America and beyond.  Paulson tried to undo the damage to Goldman and the other insolvent, “too big to fail” banks at taxpayer expense with the TARP bailouts.  When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, his first order of business was to ignore the advice of Adam Posen (“Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System”) and Professor Matthew Richardson.  The consequences of Obama’s failure to put those “zombie banks” through temporary receivership were explained by Karen Maley of the Business Spectator website:

Ireland has at least faced up to the consequences of the reckless lending, unlike the United States.  The Obama administration has adopted a muddle-through approach, hoping that a recovery in housing prices might mean that the big US banks can avoid recognising crippling property losses.

*   *   *

Leading US bank analyst, Chris Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, has warned that the banks are struggling to cope with the mountain of problem home loans and delinquent commercial property loans.  Whalen estimates that the big US banks have restructured less than a quarter of their delinquent commercial and residential real estate loans, and the backlog of problem loans is growing.

This is eroding bank profitability, because they are no longer collecting interest on a huge chunk of their loan book.  At the same time, they also face higher administration and legal costs as they deal with the problem property loans.

Banks nursing huge portfolios of problem loans become reluctant to make new loans, which chokes off economic activity.

Ultimately, Whalen warns, the US government will have to bow to the inevitable and restructure some of the major US banks.  At that point the US banking system will have to recognise hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from the deflation of the US mortgage bubble.

If Whalen is right, Ireland is a template of what lies ahead for the US.

Chris Whalen’s recent presentation, “Pictures of Deflation” is downright scary and I’m amazed that it has not been receiving the attention it deserves.  Surprisingly — and ironically – one of the only news sources discussing Whalen’s outlook has been that peerless font of stock market bullishness:  CNBC.   Whalen was interviewed on CNBC’s Fast Money program on October 8.  You can see the video here.  The Whalen interview begins at 7 minutes into the clip.  John Carney (formerly of The Business Insider website) now runs the NetNet blog for CNBC, which featured this interview by Lori Ann LoRocco with Chris Whalen and Jim Rickards, Senior Managing Director of Market Intelligence at Omnis, Inc.  Here are some tidbits from this must-read interview:

LL:  Chris, when are you expecting the storm to hit?

CW:  When the too big to fail banks can no longer fudge the cost of restructuring their real estate exposures, on and off balance sheet. Q3 earnings may be the catalyst

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

CW:  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Citigroup among the top four.  GMAC.  Why do we still refer to the ugly girls — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo in particular — as zombies?  Because the avalanche of foreclosures and claims against the too-big-too-fail banks has not even crested.

*   *   *

LL:  How many banks to expect to fail next year because of this?

CW:  The better question is how we will deal with the process of restructuring.  My view is that the government/FDIC can act as receiver in a government led restructuring of top-four banks.  It is time for PIMCO, BlackRock and their bond holder clients to contribute to the restructuring process.

Of course, this restructuring could have and should have been done two years earlier — in February of 2009.  Once the dust settles, you can be sure that someone will calculate the cost of kicking this can down the road — especially if it involves another round of bank bailouts.  As the saying goes:  “He who hesitates is lost.”  In this case, President Obama hesitated and we lost.  We lost big.



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We Took The Wrong Turn

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October 7, 2010

The ugly truth has raised its head once again.  We did it wrong and Australia did it right.  It was just over a year ago – on September 21, 2009 – when I wrote a piece entitled, “The Broken Promise”.  I concluded that posting with this statement:

If only Mr. Obama had stuck with his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”, we wouldn’t have so many people wishing they lived in Australia.

I focused that piece on a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

With the passing of time, it has become painfully obvious that President Obama took the country down the wrong path.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  Economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

Fast-forward to October 6, 2010.  Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Jobs in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile — back in the States — on October 6, ADP released its National Employment Report for September, 2010.  It should come as no surprise that our fate is 180 degrees away from that of Australia:  Private sector employment in the U.S. decreased by 39,000 from August to September on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the ADP report.   Beyond that, October 6 brought us a gloomy forecast from Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist for the ever-popular Goldman Sachs Group.  Wes Goodman of Bloomberg News quoted Hatzius as predicting that the United States’ economy will be “fairly bad” or “very bad” over the next six to nine months:

“We see two main scenarios,” analysts led by Jan Hatzius, the New York-based chief U.S. economist at the company, wrote in an e-mail to clients.  “A fairly bad one in which the economy grows at a 1 1/2 percent to 2 percent rate through the middle of next year and the unemployment rate rises moderately to 10 percent, and a very bad one in which the economy returns to an outright recession.”

Aren’t we lucky!  How wise of President Obama to rely on Larry Summers to the exclusion of most other economists!

Charles Ferguson, director of the new documentary film, Inside Job, recently offered this analysis of the milieu that facilitated the opportunity for Larry Summers to inflict his painful legacy upon us:

Then, after the 2008 financial crisis and its consequent recession, Summers was placed in charge of coordinating U.S. economic policy, deftly marginalizing others who challenged him.  Under the stewardship of Summers, Geithner, and Bernanke, the Obama administration adopted policies as favorable toward the financial sector as those of the Clinton and Bush administrations — quite a feat.  Never once has Summers publicly apologized or admitted any responsibility for causing the crisis.  And now Harvard is welcoming him back.

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.

*     *     *

Now, however, as the national recovery is faltering, Summers is being eased out while Harvard is welcoming him back.  How will the academic world receive him?  The simple answer:  Better than he deserves.

Australia is looking better than ever  —  especially when you consider that their spring season is just beginning right now     .   .   .