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Giving Centrism A Bad Name

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

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

Sandra:

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

Rex:

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

Wasabi:

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

Z:

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

Steelhead23:

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

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

Yves Smith:

Obama is an authoritarian narcissist, an ugly combination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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


 

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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?


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