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More Great Thoughts from Jeremy Grantham

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I always look forward to Jeremy Grantham’s Quarterly Letter.  Grantham is the Co-founder and Chief Investment Strategist of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo (GMO), an investment management firm, entrusted to oversee approximately $97 billion in client assets.

Unlike many asset managers, Jeremy Grantham has a social conscience.  As a result, during the past few years we have seen him direct some sharp criticism at President Obama, Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and – of course – Goldman Sachs.  Grantham fell behind schedule when his Third Quarter 2011 Letter was delayed by over a month.  As a result, Grantham’s Fourth Quarter 2011 Letter was just released a few days ago.  At 15 pages, it earned the title “The Longest Quarterly Letter Ever”.  As usual, Grantham has provided us with some great investment insights – along with some pointed criticism of our ignorant legislators and mercenary corporate managers.  What follows are some selected passages.  Be sure to read the entire letter here (when you have time).

To leave it to capitalism to get us out of this fix by maximizing its short-term profits is dangerously naïve and misses the point: capitalism and corporations have absolutely no mechanism for dealing with these problems, and seen through a corporate discount rate lens, our grandchildren really do have no value.

To move from the problem of long time horizons to the short-term common good, it is quickly apparent that capitalism in general has no sense of ethics or conscience.  Whatever the Supreme Court may think, it is not a person.  Why would a company give up a penny for the common good if it is not required to by enforced regulation or unless it looked like that penny might be returned with profit in the future because having a good image might be good for business?  Ethical CEOs can drag a company along for a while, but this is an undependable and temporary fix.  Ethical humans can also impose their will on corporations singly or en masse by withholding purchases or bestowing them, and companies can anticipate this and even influence it through clever brand advertising, “clean coal” being my favorite.  But that is quite different from corporate altruism. Thus, we can roast our planet and firms may offer marvelous and profitable energy-saving equipment, but it will be for profit today, not planet saving tomorrow.

It gets worse, for what capitalism has always had is money with which to try to buy influence.  Today’s version of U.S. capitalism has died and gone to heaven on this issue. A company is now free to spend money to influence political outcomes and need tell no one, least of all its own shareholders, the technical owners.  So, rich industries can exert so much political influence that they now have a dangerous degree of influence over Congress.  And the issues they most influence are precisely the ones that matter most, the ones that are most important to society’s long-term well-being, indeed its very existence.  Thus, taking huge benefits from Nature and damaging it in return is completely free and all attempts at government control are fought with costly lobbying and advertising.  And one of the first victims in this campaign has been the truth.  If scientific evidence suggests costs and limits be imposed on industry to protect the long-term environment, then science will be opposed by clever disinformation.

*   *   *

Capitalism certainly acts as if it believes that rapid growth in physical wealth can go on forever.  It appears to be hooked on high growth and avoids any suggestion that it might be slowed down by limits.  Thus, it exhibits horror at the thought (and occasional reality) of declining population when in fact such a decline is an absolute necessity in order for us to end up gracefully, rather than painfully, at a fully sustainable world economy.  Similarly with natural resources, capitalism wants to eat into these precious, limited resources at an accelerating rate with the subtext that everyone on the planet has the right to live like the wasteful polluting developed countries do today.  You don’t have to be a PhD mathematician to work out that if the average Chinese and Indian were to catch up with (the theoretically moving target of) the average American, then our planet’s goose is cooked, along with most other things.  Indeed, scientists calculate that if they caught up, we would need at least three planets to be fully sustainable.  But few listen to scientists these days.  So, do you know how many economic theories treat resources as if they are finite?  Well, the researchers at the O.E.C.D say “none” – that no such theory exists.  Economic theory either ignores this little problem or assumes you reach out and take the needed resources given the normal workings of supply and demand and you can do it indefinitely.  This is a lack of common sense on a par with “rational expectations,” that elegant theory that encouraged the ludicrous faith in deregulation and the wisdom of free markets, which brought us our recent financial fiascos.  But this failure in economic theory – ignoring natural limits – risks far more dangerous outcomes than temporary financial crashes.

*   *   *

As described above, the current U.S. capitalist system appears to contain some potentially fatal flaws.  Therefore, we should ask what it would take for our system to evolve in time to save our bacon.  Clearly, a better balance with regulations would be a help. This requires reasonably enlightened regulations, which are unlikely to be produced until big money’s influence in Congress, and particularly in elections, decreases.  This would necessitate legal changes all the way up to the Supreme Court.  It’s a long haul, but a handful of other democratic countries in northern Europe have been successful, and with the stakes so high we have little alternative but to change our ways.

*   *   *

Capitalism, by ignoring the finite nature of resources and by neglecting the long-term well-being of the planet and its potentially crucial biodiversity, threatens our existence.  Fifty and one-hundred-year horizons are important despite the “tyranny of the discount rate,” and grandchildren do have value. My conclusion is that capitalism does admittedly do a thousand things better than other systems:  it only currently fails in two or three.  Unfortunately for us all, even a single one of these failings may bring capitalism down and us with it.

Keep in mind that the foregoing passages were just from Part II of the Quarterly Letter.  Part III is focused on “Investment Observations for the New Year”.  Be sure to check it out – it’s not as bearish as you might expect.  Enjoy!



 

Government Should Listen To These Wealth Managers

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A good deal of Mitt Romney’s appeal as a Presidential candidate is based on his experience as a private equity fund manager – despite the “vulture capitalist” moniker, favored by some of his critics.  Many voters believe that America needs someone with more “business sense” in the White House.  Listening to Mitt Romney would lead one to believe that America’s economic and unemployment problems will not be solved until “government gets out of the way”, allowing those sanctified “job creators” to bring salvation to the unemployed masses.  Those who complained about how the system has been rigged against the American middle class during the past few decades have found themselves accused of waging “class warfare”.  We are supposed to believe that Romney speaks on behalf of “business” when he lashes out against “troublesome” government regulations which hurt the corporate bottom line and therefore – all of America.

Nevertheless, the real world happens to be the home of many wealth managers – entrusted with enormous amounts of money by a good number of rich people and institutional investors – who envision quite a different role of government than the mere nuisance described by Romney and like-minded individuals.  If only our elected officials – and more of the voting public – would pay close attention to the sage advice offered by these wealth managers, we might be able to solve our nation’s economic and unemployment problems.

Last summer, bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO  lamented the Obama administration’s obliviousness to the need for government involvement in short-term job creation:

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.

In my last posting, I discussed a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian emphasized that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

On October 31, I focused on the propaganda war waged against the Occupy Wall Street movement, concluding the piece with my expectation that Jeremy Grantham’s upcoming third quarter newsletter would provide some sorely-needed, astute commentary on the situation.  Jeremy Grantham, rated by Bloomberg BusinessWeek as one of the Fifty Most Influential Money Managers, released an abbreviated edition of that newsletter one month later than usual, due to a busy schedule.  In addition to expressing some supportive comments about the OWS movement, Grantham noted that he would provide a special supplement, based specifically on that subject.  Finally, on February 5, Mr. Grantham made good on his promise with an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled, “People now see it as a system for the rich only”:

For the time being, in the US our corporate and governmental system backed surprisingly by the Supreme Court has become a plutocracy, designed to prolong, protect and intensify the wealth and influence of those who already have the wealth and influence.  What the Occupy movement indicates is that a growing number of people have begun to recognise this in spite of the efficiency of capital’s propaganda machines.  Forty years of no pay increase in the US after inflation for the average hour worked should, after all, have that effect.  The propaganda is good but not that good.

*   *   *

In 50 years economic mobility in the US has gone from the best to one of the worst.  The benefits of the past 40 years of quite normal productivity have been abnormally divided between the very rich (and corporations) and the workers.

Indeed “divide” is not the right word, for, remarkably, the workers received no benefit at all, while the top 0.1 per cent has increased its share nearly fourfold in 35 years to a record equal to 1929 and the gilded age.

But the best propaganda of all is that the richest 400 people now have assets equal to the poorest 140m.  If that doesn’t disturb you, you have a wallet for a heart.  The Occupiers’ theme should be simple:  “More sensible assistance for the working poor, more taxes for the rich.”

I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  Back in November of 2010, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

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

*   *   *

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

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.  It’s hard to imagine that Mitt Romney would take a tougher stance against those zombie banks than what we have seen from the Obama administration.

Our government officials – from across the political spectrum – would be wise to follow the advice offered by these fund managers.  A political hack whose livelihood is based entirely on passive income has little to offer in the way of “business sense” when compared to a handful of fund managers, entrusted to use their business and financial acumen to preserve so many billions of dollars.  Who speaks for business?  It should be those business leaders who demonstrate concern for the welfare of all human beings in America.


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Losing The Propaganda War

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The propaganda war waged by corporatist news media against the Occupy Wall Street movement is rapidly deteriorating.  When the occupation of Zuccotti Park began on September 17, the initial response from mainstream news outlets was to simply ignore it – with no mention of the event whatsoever.  When that didn’t work, the next tactic involved using the “giggle factor” to characterize the protesters as “hippies” or twenty-something “hippie wanna-bes”, attempting to mimic the protests in which their parents participated during the late-1960s.  When that mischaracterization failed to get any traction, the presstitutes’ condemnation of the occupation events – which had expanded from nationwide to worldwide – became more desperate:  the participants were called everything from “socialists” to “anti-Semites”.

Despite the incessant flow of propaganda from those untrustworthy sources, a good deal of commentary – understanding, sympathetic or even supportive of Occupy Wall Street began to appear in some unlikely places.  For example, Roger Lowenstein wrote a piece for Bloomberg BusinessWeek entitled, “Occupy Wall Street: It’s Not a Hippie Thing”:

As critics have noted, the protesters are not in complete agreement with each other, but the overall message is reasonably coherent.  They want more and better jobs, more equal distribution of income, less profit (or no profit) for banks, lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on banks with regard to negotiating consumer services such as mortgages and debit cards.  They also want to reduce the influence that corporations – financial firms in particular – wield in politics, and they want a more populist set of government priorities: bailouts for student debtors and mortgage holders, not just for banks.

In stark contrast with the disparaging sarcasm spewed by the tools at CNBC and Fox News concerning this subject, The Economist demonstrated why it enjoys such widespread respect:

So the big banks’ apologies for their role in messing up the world economy have been grudging and late, and Joe Taxpayer has yet to hear a heartfelt “thank you” for bailing them out.  Summoned before Congress, Wall Street bosses have made lawyerised statements that make them sound arrogant, greedy and unrepentant.  A grand gesture or two – such as slashing bonuses or giving away a tonne of money – might have gone some way towards restoring public faith in the industry.  But we will never know because it didn’t happen.

On the contrary, Wall Street appears to have set its many brilliant minds the task of infuriating the public still further, by repossessing homes of serving soldiers, introducing fees for using debit cards and so on.  Goldman Sachs showed a typical tin ear by withdrawing its sponsorship of a fund-raiser for a credit union (financial co-operative) on November 3rd because it planned to honour Occupy Wall Street.

The Washington Post conducted a poll with the Pew Research Center which compared and contrasted popular support for Occupy Wall Street with that of the Tea Party movement.  The poll revealed that ten percent of Americans support both movements.  On the other hand, Tea Party support is heavily drawn from Republican voters (71%) while only 24% of Republicans – as opposed to 64% of Democrats – support Occupy Wall Street.  As for self-described “Moderates”, only 24% support the Tea Party compared with Occupy Wall Street’s 45% support from Moderates.  Rest assured that these numbers will not deter unscrupulous critics from describing Occupy Wall Street as a “fringe movement”.

The best smackdown of the shabby reportage on Occupy Wall Street came from Dahlia Lithwick of Slate:

Mark your calendars:  The corporate media died when it announced it was too sophisticated to understand simple declarative sentences.  While the mainstream media expresses puzzlement and fear at these incomprehensible “protesters” with their oddly well-worded “signs,” the rest of us see our own concerns reflected back at us and understand perfectly.  Turning off mindless programming might be the best thing that ever happens to this polity.  Hey, occupiers:  You’re the new news. And even better, by refusing to explain yourselves, you’re actually changing what’s reported as news.  Because it takes a tremendous mental effort to refuse to see that the rich are getting richer in America while the rest of us are struggling.  Maybe the days of explaining the patently obvious to the transparently compromised are finally behind us.

By refusing to take a ragtag, complicated, and leaderless movement seriously, the mainstream media has succeeded only in ensuring its own irrelevance.  The rest of America has little trouble understanding that these are ragtag, complicated, and leaderless times.  This may not make for great television, but any movement that acknowledges that fact deserves enormous credit.

Too many mainstream news outlets appear to be suffering from the same disease as our government and our financial institutions.  Jeremy Grantham’s Third Quarter 2011 newsletter will be coming out in a few days and I’m hoping that he will prescribe a cure.  My wilder dream is that those vested with the authority and responsibility to follow his advice would simply do so.


 

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Barack Oblivious

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As I’ve been discussing here for quite a while, commentators from across the political spectrum have been busy criticizing the job performance of President Obama.  The mood of most critics seems to have progressed from disappointment to shock.  The situation eventually reached the point where, regardless of what one thought about the job Obama was doing – at least the President could provide us with a good speech.  That changed on Monday, August 8 – when Obama delivered his infamous “debt downgrade” speech – in the wake of the controversial decision by Standard and Poor’s to lower America’s credit rating from AAA to AA+.  This reaction from Joe Nocera of The New York Times was among the more restrained:

When did President Obama become such a lousy speech-maker?  His remarks on Monday afternoon, aimed at calming the markets, were flat and uninspired — as they have consistently been throughout the debt ceiling crisis.  “No matter what some agency may say,” he said, ”we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country.”  Is that really the best he could do?  The markets, realizing he had little or nothing to offer, continued their swoon.  What is particularly frustrating is that the president seems to have so little to say on the subject of job creation, which should be his most pressing concern.

Actually, President Obama should have been concerned about job creation back in January of 2009.  For some reason, this President had been pushing ahead with his own agenda, while oblivious to the concerns of America’s middle class.  His focus on what eventually became an enfeebled healthcare bill caused him to ignore this country’s most serious problem:  unemployment.  Our economy is 70% consumer-driven.  Because the twenty-five million Americans who lost their jobs since the inception of the financial crisis have remained unemployed — goods aren’t being sold.  This hurts manufacturers, retailers and shipping companies.  With twenty-five million Americans persistently unemployed, the tax base is diminished – meaning that there is less money available to pay down America’s debt.  The people Barry Ritholtz calls the “deficit chicken hawks” (politicians who oppose any government spending programs which don’t benefit their own constituents) refuse to allow the federal government to get involved in short-term “job creation”.  This “savings” depletes taxable revenue and increases government debt.  President Obama — the master debater from Harvard – has refused to challenge the “deficit chicken hawks” to debate the need for any sort of short-term jobs program.

Bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO recently lamented this administration’s obliviousness to the need for government involvement in short-term job creation:

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.

Back in July of 2009 – five months after the economic stimulus bill was passed – I pointed out how many prominent economists – including at least one of Obama’s closest advisors, had been emphasizing that the stimulus was inadequate and that we could eventually face a double-dip recession:

A July 7 report by Shamim Adam for Bloomberg News quoted Laura Tyson, an economic advisor to President Obama, as stating that last February’s $787 billion economic stimulus package was “a bit too small”.  Ms. Tyson gave this explanation:

“The economy is worse than we forecast on which the stimulus program was based,” Tyson, who is a member of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory board, told the Nomura Equity Forum.  “We probably have already 2.5 million more job losses than anticipated.”

Economist Brad DeLong recently provided us with a little background on the thinking that had been taking place within the President’s inner circle during 2009:

In the late spring of 2009, Barack Obama had five economic policy principals: Tim Geithner, who thought Obama had done enough to boost demand and needed to turn to long-run deficit reduction; Ben Bernanke, who thought that the Fed had done enough to boost demand and that the administration needed to turn to deficit reduction; Peter Orszag, who thought the administration needed to turn to deficit reduction immediately and could also use that process to pass (small) further stimulus; Larry Summers, who thought that long-run deficit reduction could wait until the recovery was well-established and that the administration needed to push for more demand stimulus; and Christina Romer, who thought that long-run deficit reduction should wait until the recovery was well-established and that the administration needed to push for much more demand stimulus.

Now Romer, Summers, and Orszag are gone.  Their successors – Goolsbee, Sperling, and Lew – are extraordinary capable civil servants but are not nearly as loud policy voices and lack the substantive issue knowledge of their predecessors.  The two who are left, Geithner and Bernanke, are the two who did not see the world as it was in mid-2009.  And they do not seem to have recalibrated their beliefs about how the world works – they still think that they were right in mid-2009, or should have been right, or something.

I fear that they still do not see the situation as it really is.

And I do not see anyone in the American government serving as a counterbalance.

Meanwhile, the dreaded “double-dip” recession is nearly at hand.  Professor DeLong recently posted a chart on his blog, depicting daily Treasury real yield curve rates under the heading, “Treasury Real Interest Rates Now Negative Out to Ten Years…”  He added this comment:

If this isn’t a market prediction of a double-dip and a lost decade (or more), I don’t know what would be.  At least Hoover was undertaking interventions in financial markets–and not just blathering about how cutting spending was the way to call the Confidence Fairy…

President Obama has been oblivious to our nation’s true economic predicament since 2009.  Even if there were any Hope that his attentiveness to this matter might Change – at this point, it’s probably too late.


 

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John Ashcroft Was Right

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Many commentators have expressed surprise about the extensive criticism directed against President Obama by liberals.  During the new President’s third month in office, I pointed out how he had become the “Disappointer-In-Chief” – when he began to elicit groans from the likes of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.  President Obama has continued on that trajectory ever since.  More recently, Obama’s mishandling of the economic crisis resulted in a great cover story for New York Magazine by Frank Rich, entitled, “Obama’s Original Sin”.  Although Frank Rich may have been a bit restrained in his criticism of Obama, Marshall Auerback didn’t pull any punches in an essay he wrote for the New Economic Perspectives website entitled, “Barack Obama:  America’s First Tea Party President”:

Cutting public spending at this juncture is the last thing the US government should be doing.  Yet this President is pushing for the largest possible cuts that he can on the Federal government debt.  He is out-Hoovering the GOP on this issue.  He is providing “leadership” of the sort which is infuriating his base, but should endear him to the Tea Party.  This is “the big thing” for Barack Obama, as opposed to maximizing the potential of his fellow Americans by seeking to eliminate the scourge of unemployment.  Instead, his big idea is to become the president who did what George Bush could not, or did not, dare to do:  cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  What more could the Tea Party possibly want?

Glenn Greenwald of Salon has been a persistent critic of President Obama for quite a while.  Back in September of 2010, I referenced one of Glenn Greenwald’s exceptive essays about Obama with this thought:

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

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

John Ashcroft’s prescient remark could not have been more accurate.  Who else could have foreseen that the Obama Presidency would eventually be correlated with that of President George W. Bush?  Although it may have seemed like a preposterous notion at the time, it’s now beginning to make more sense, thanks to a very interesting piece I read at the Truthdig website entitled, “If McCain Had Won” by Fred Branfman.  Branfman began with a list of “catastrophes” we would have seen from a McCain administration, followed by this comment:

Nothing reveals the true state of American politics today more, however, than the fact that Democratic President Barack Obama has undertaken all of these actions and, even more significantly, left the Democratic Party far weaker than it would have been had McCain been elected.

More important, the sentence immediately following that remark deserves special attention because it forms the crux of Branfman’s analysis:

Few issues are more important than seeing behind the screen of a myth-making mass media, and understanding what this demonstrates about how power in America really works – and what needs to be done to change it.

From there, Branfman went on to explain how and why McCain would have made the same decisions and enacted the same policies as Obama.  Beyond that, Branfman explained why Obama ended up doing things exactly as McCain would have:

Furious debate rages among Obama’s Democratic critics today on why he has largely governed on the big issues as John McCain would have done. Some believe he retains his principles but has been forced to compromise by political realities. Others are convinced he was a manipulative politico who lacked any real convictions in the first place.

But there is a far more likely – and disturbing – possibility.  Based on those who knew him and his books, there is little reason to doubt that the pre-presidential Obama was a college professor-type who shared the belief system of his liberalish set …

*   *   *

Upon taking office, however, Obama – whatever his belief system at that point – found that he was unable to accomplish these goals for one basic reason:  The president of the United States is far less powerful than media myth portrays.  Domestic power really is in the hands of economic elites and their lobbyists, and foreign policy really is controlled by U.S. executive branch national security managers and a “military-industrial complex.”

The ugly truth strikes again!  The seemingly “all-powerful” President of the United States is nothing more than a tool of the plutocracy.  It doesn’t matter whether the White House is occupied by a Democrat or a Republican – the policies (domestic, foreign, economic, etc.) will always be the same – because the people calling the shots are always the same plutocrats who control those “too big to fail” banks, the military industry and big pharma.  As Branfman put it:

.   .   .   anyone who becomes president has little choice but to serve the institutional interests of a profoundly amoral and violent executive branch and the corporations behind them.

Perhaps in response to the oft-cited criticism that “if you’re not part of the solution – you’re part of the problem”, Fred Branfman has offered us a proposal that could send us on the way to changing this intolerable status quo:

But however important the 2012 election, far more energy needs to be devoted to building mass organizations that challenge elite power and develop the kinds of policies – including massive investment in a “clean energy economic revolution,” a carbon tax and other tough measures to stave off climate change, regulating and breaking up the financial sector, cost-effective entitlements like single-payer health insurance, and public financing of primary and general elections – which alone can save America and its democracy in the painful decade to come.

Wait a minute!  Didn’t Obama already promise us all of that stuff?

Perhaps the only way to achieve those goals is by voting for Independent political candidates, who are not beholden to the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party or its financiers.  When the mainstream media go out of their way to pretend as though a particular candidate does not exist – you might want to give serious consideration to voting for that person.  When the media try to “disappear” a candidate by “hiding” that person “in plain sight”, they could be inadvertently providing the best type of endorsement imaginable.

The same level of energy that brought Obama to the White House could be used to bring us our first Independent President.  All we need is a candidate.


 

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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.

*   *   *

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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Hillary Throws A Tupperware Party

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While reading through Saturday’s Links at the Naked Capitalism website, I came across a posting by Jane Hamsher entitled, “Hillary Clinton Hosts ‘Iraq Opportunities’ Party For War Profiteers”.  I was reminded that a war, initiated under the pretext of finding Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction”, was really all about creating “Iraq Opportunities”.  Using the “good cop / bad cop” routine, the “bad cops” of our One-Party System (the “Republican” branch of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party) promoted a war, which the “good cop” Democrat branch of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party claimed it was “forced” to support.  Just because Saddam wasn’t really stockpiling any weapons of mass destruction, doesn’t mean we can’t find any “Iraq Opportunities”.

Sure, there’s been a “changing of the guard” since the Iraq war began, but a look at the guest list for Hillary’s “Iraq Opportunities Party” will reveal the identities of some corporations, which expect to benefit from the expenditure of human lives and trillions of taxpayer dollars on the Iraq war effort.  Of course, Halliburton and KBR were invited to send some partygoers to the fete.  But don’t forget – the Obama Administration has been in charge for over two years  . . . so Alex von Sponek of Goldman Sachs was on the guest list.  As you can imagine, a Tupperware Party just wouldn’t be a Tupperware Party without a representative from Tupperware in attendance.  Accordingly, Rick Goins, the company’s CEO, received an invitation.

News of this event confirmed my worst suspicions about the Iraq war.  I wasn’t simply reacting to what Jane Hamsher had to say about Hillary’s Tupperware Party:

As Congress launches a bipartisan PR campaign to stay in Iraq forever, the White House throws a corporate looting party.

Ben White of Politico described the event as an expansion of Wall Street’s tentacles:

FIRST LOOK:  WALL STREET IN IRAQ? – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Deputy Secretary Tom Nides (formerly chief administrative officer at Morgan Stanley) will host a group of corporate executives at State this morning as part of the Iraq Business Roundtable.  Corporate executives from approximately 30 major U.S. companies – including financial firms Citigroup, JPMorganChase and Goldman Sachs – will join U.S. and Iraqi officials to discuss economic opportunities in the new Iraq.

While most of us have been conditioned to think of the Iraq War as a product of the neoconservative agenda, several commentators have discussed the role of neoliberalism as a motivator for the invasion of Iraq.  In a great essay entitled, “On Neoliberalism”, Sherry Ortner of the Anthropology Of This Century website, discussed the role of what Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, called “disaster capitalism” in bringing us to that moment of “shock and awe”:

If social or natural disasters do not offer themselves up, Klein shows convincingly that they will be manufactured, the war in Iraq being the latest case in point.  Let us follow the Iraq war thread into David Harvey’s 2007 book, A Short History of Neo-Liberalism, where it is his opening example.   Like Klein, Harvey sees “the management and manipulation of crises” (p. 162), whether floods, wars, or financial melt-downs, as part and parcel of establishing the neoliberal agenda.  And like Klein, he provides abundant evidence to show that the war in Iraq was a crisis manufactured to “impose by main force on Iraq… a state apparatus whose fundamental mission was to facilitate conditions for profitable capital accumulation”(p. 7).

Harvey offers a clear definition of neoliberalism as a system of “accumulation by dispossession,” which has four main pillars:  1) the “privatization and commodification” of public goods; 2) “financialization,” in which any kind of good (or bad) can be turned into an instrument of economic speculation; 3) the “management and manipulation of crises” (as above); and 4) “state redistribution,” in which the state becomes an agent of the upward redistribution of wealth (159-164 passim).

Harvey places particular emphasis on the last point, the upward redistribution of wealth.  He takes issue with other writers who argue that the enormous growth of social inequality since the beginnings of neoliberalization in the 1970s is an unfortunate by-product of what is otherwise a sound economic theory.  Instead Harvey sees the vast enrichment of an upper class of capital owners and managers at the expense of everyone else as an intrinsic part of the neoliberal agenda:  “Redistributive effects and increasing social inequality have in fact been such a persistent feature of neoliberalization as to be regarded as structural to the whole project.” (p. 16).

The only real surprise to me was the revelation that the elite “upper class of capital owners and managers” likes to attend Tupperware parties.


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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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How States Can Save Billions

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We’ve been reading a lot about fallout lately.  The Fukushima power plant disaster is now providing a lasting legacy all over the world.  This animation from the French national meteorological service, Météo-France, illustrates how the spread of the Fukushima fallout is migrating.

For the past three years, we have been living with the fallout from a financial “meltdown”, which resulted from deregulation, greed and the culture of “pervasive permissiveness” at the Federal Reserve, as discussed in the Financial Crisis Inquiry Report.  The fallout from the financial meltdown has also spread across the entire world.  Different countries have employed different approaches for coping with the situation.  In Ireland, the banks were bailed out at taxpayer expense, crippling that nation’s economy for generations to come.  As a result, the Irish citizens fought back, went to the polls and ousted the perfidious politicians who helped the banks avoid responsibility for their transgressions.   On the other hand, in Portugal, the government refused to impose austerity measures on the citizens, who should not be expected to pay the price for the financial mischief that gave rise to the current economic predicament.  Given the additional fact that Portugal, as a nation, was not a “player” in the risky games that nearly brought down the world economy, the recent decision by the Portuguese parliament is easy to understand.

In our own country, the various states have found it quite difficult to balance their budgets.  High unemployment, which refuses to abate, and depressed real estate valuation have devastated each state’s revenue base.  Because the states cannot print money, as the Federal Reserve does in order to pay the federal government’s bills, it has become necessary for the states to rely on creative gimmicks to reverse their misfortunes.  Most states had previously deployed numerous “economic development projects” over the years.  Such projects are taxpayer-funded subsidies to attract corporations and entice them to establish local operations.  Rex Nutting of MarketWatch recently took a critical look at those programs:

And yet, study after study show that these subsidies create few, if any, net jobs.  For instance, California’s Enterprise Zone program – which is supposed to boost business in 42 economically distressed communities – has cost the taxpayers $3.6 billion over 27 years, but to no avail.  A legislative analyst report in 2005 found that “EZs have little if any impact on the creation of new economic activity or employment.” Read more from the legislative analyst report.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to kill the EZ program and the even-more expensive redevelopment agency program, but he faces an uphill fight in the Legislature.  Such subsidies are popular with the legislators who receive boatloads of campaign contributions from businesses lucky enough to find a government teat to latch on to.

Nationwide, such giveaways from state and municipal governments amounted to more than $70 billion in 2010, according to Kenneth Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who has specialized in studying these subsidies.  That’s more than the states collect in corporate income taxes in a good year.  Read about Thomas’s book: “Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital”

And that $70 billion is twice as much money as would be required to fully fund the pensions owed to state and local government workers, the very same pensions that budget-cutting politicians across the country claim are responsible for the fiscal hole we’re in.

What Rex Nutting has suggested amounts to the elimination of a significant number of corporate welfare programs.  He has also dared to challenge the corporatist mantra that corporate welfare “creates jobs”.  We are supposed to believe that the only way states can balance their budgets is through the imposition of draconian austerity programs, designed to force the “little people” to – once again – pay the tab for Wall Street’s binge.  Because the voters have no lobbyists to protect their own interests, venal state and local politicians have set about slashing public safety expenditures (through mass layoffs of police and firefighters), closing parks and libraries, as well as under-funding public school systems.

Never mind that state and local governments could save $70 billion by cutting just one form of corporate welfare.  They would rather let you watch your house burn down.  You can’t afford that house anyway.


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Fighting The Old War

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September 30, 2010

The New York Times recently ran a story about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to support the campaigns of centrist Republicans out of concern that the election of “Tea Party” –  backed candidates was pushing the Republican Party to the extreme right.  The article by Michael Barbaro began this way:

In an election year when anger and mistrust have upended races across the country, toppling moderates and elevating white-hot partisans, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is trying to pull politics back to the middle, injecting himself into marquee contests and helping candidates fend off the Tea Party.

Although it’s nice to see Mayor Bloomberg take a stand in support of centrism, I believe he is going about it the wrong way.  There are almost as many different motives driving people to the Tea Party movement as there are attendees at any given Tea Party event.  Although the movement is usually described as a far-right-wing fringe phenomenon, reporters who have attended the rallies and talked to the people found a more diverse group.  Consider the observations made by True Slant’s David Masciotra, who attended a Tea Party rally in Valparaiso, Indiana back on April 14:

The populist anger of the Northwest Indiana tea partiers could be moved to a left-wing protest rally without much discernible difference.

As much as the NWI Patriots seemed to hate Obama and health care reform, they also hate large corporations and the favorable treatment they are given by Washington.

*   *   *

They have largely legitimate concerns and grievances about the quality of their lives and future of their children’s lives that are not being addressed in Washington by either party.  Their wages have stagnated, while the cost of raising a family has crushingly increased.

My pet theory is that the rise of the Tea Party movement is just the first signal indicating the demise of the so-called “two-party system”.  I expect this to happen as voters begin to face up to the fact that the differences between Democratic and Republican policies are subtle when compared to the parties’ united front with lobbyists and corporations in trampling the interests of individual citizens.  On July 26, I wrote a piece entitled, “The War On YOU”, discussing the battle waged by “our one-party system, controlled by the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party”.   On August 30, I made note of a recent essay at the Zero Hedge website, written by Michael Krieger of KAM LP.  One of Krieger’s points, which resonated with me, was the idea that whether you have a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, both parties are beholden to the financial elites, so there’s not much room for any “change you can believe in”:

.   .  .   the election of Obama has proven to everyone watching with an unbiased eye that no matter who the President is they continue to prop up an elite at the top that has been running things into the ground for years.  The appointment of Larry Summers and Tiny Turbo-Tax Timmy Geithner provided the most obvious sign that something was seriously not kosher.  Then there was the reappointment of Ben Bernanke.  While the Republicans like to simplify him as merely a socialist he represents something far worse.

Barry Ritholtz, publisher of The Big Picture website, recently wrote a piece focused on how the old Left vs. Right paradigm has become obsolete.  He explained that the current power struggle taking place in Washington (and everywhere else) is the battle of corporations against individuals:

We now live in an era defined by increasing Corporate influence and authority over the individual.  These two “interest groups” – I can barely suppress snorting derisively over that phrase – have been on a headlong collision course for decades, which came to a head with the financial collapse and bailouts.  Where there are massive concentrations of wealth and influence, there will be abuse of power.  The Individual has been supplanted in the political process nearly entirely by corporate money, legislative influence, campaign contributions, even free speech rights.

*   *   *

For those of you who are stuck in the old Left/Right debate, you are missing the bigger picture.  Consider this about the Bailouts:  It was a right-winger who bailed out all of the big banks, Fannie Mae, and AIG in the first place; then his left winger successor continued to pour more money into the fire pit.

What difference did the Left/Right dynamic make?   Almost none whatsoever.

*   *   *

There is some pushback already taking place against the concentration of corporate power:  Mainstream corporate media has been increasingly replaced with user created content – YouTube and Blogs are increasingly important to news consumers (especially younger users).  Independent voters are an increasingly larger share of the US electorate. And I suspect that much of the pushback against the Elizabeth Warren’s concept of a Financial Consumer Protection Agency plays directly into this Corporate vs. Individual fight.

But the battle lines between the two groups have barely been drawn.  I expect this fight will define American politics over the next decade.

Keynes vs Hayek?  Friedman vs Krugman?  Those are the wrong intellectual debates.  It’s you vs. Tony Hayward, BP CEO,  You vs. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO.   And you are losing    . . .

Barry Ritholtz concluded with the statement:

If you see the world in terms of Left & Right, you really aren’t seeing the world at all  . . .

I couldn’t agree more.  Beyond that, I believe that politicians who continue to champion the old Left vs. Right war will find themselves in the dust as those leaders representing the interests of human citizens  rather than corporate interests win the support and enthusiasm of the electorate.   Similarly, those news and commentary outlets failing to adapt to this changing milieu will no longer have a significant following.  It will be interesting to see who adjusts.