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Drew Westen Nails It Again

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Dr. Drew Westen is a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University.  After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree at Harvard, Westen picked up a Master’s in Social and Political Thought from the University of Sussex in England.  He earned his PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan.

In 2007, Dr. Westen wrote a book entitled, The Political BrainHere’s how the book was described by the publisher, PublicAffairs:

The idea of the mind as a cool calculator that makes decisions by weighing the evidence bears no relation to how the brain actually works.  When political candidates assume voters dispassionately make decisions based on “the issues,” they lose.      .   .   .

In politics, when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins. Elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role.     .   .   .   The evidence is overwhelming that three things determine how people vote, in this order:  their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven’t decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates’ policy positions.

The people at Fox News have been operating from this premise for years.  On Fox, the news is presented from an emotional perspective (i.e.  fear and outrage about terrorism, indignation about government spending, patriotic devotion to whomever or whatever principle is singled out for such allegiance).  Opposition political candidates (Democrats) are usually portrayed as contemptible, flawed individuals.  As a result, Fox has enjoyed tremendous success at shaping public opinion and influencing the electorate.  Dr. Westen’s book appears likely to help one understand why.

The 2008 candidacy of Barack Obama presented a unique challenge to Fox News:  A Democrat finally had a campaign based on an emotional appeal, conveyed with the single word, “Hope”.  Despite the rational campaign strategy developed by Mark Penn for Hillary Clinton, (and continued by the McCain campaign) which posed the question:  “Who is Barack Obama?” – the voters followed their emotions and voted for “Hope”.

At this point in the Obama Presidency, people from across the political spectrum (especially the Left) are still pondering Mark Penn’s 2008 question:  “Who is Barack Obama?”  As I have frequently pointed out on this website, Obama has been repeatedly criticized (by his former supporters) as a cynical, narcissistic individual, who has carefully created a Rorschach-esqe public image, shaped by whatever characteristics the individual audience members would choose to project back onto their perception of the man himself.  Obama has been able to conceal his flexible, mercenary agenda behind the Rorschach screen and until recently, few have bothered to peek behind it.

David Sirota recently wrote an insightful essay about Obama which began with these words:

Barack Obama is a lot of things – eloquent, dissembling, conniving, intelligent and above all, calm.  But one thing he is not is weak.

I was particularly impressed by an essay about our President, written by the aforementioned Dr. Drew Westen, which appeared in The New York Times on August 6.  The article was entitled, “What Happened to Obama?” and it was absolutely magnificent.  Dr. Westen began by taking us back to January of 2009, when we were still in the depths of the financial crisis, shocked by the unemployment tsunami and looking to our new President for effective leadership through a gauntlet of bank bailout schemes and economic stimulus proposals.  Unfortunately, what America heard from Barack Obama during his Inaugural Address was a big nothing.  As Dr. Westen explained, the disappointment of Obama’s Inaugural Address was emblematic of the disappointment we experienced throughout the ensuing months:

The president is fond of referring to “the arc of history,” paraphrasing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  But with his deep-seated aversion to conflict and his profound failure to understand bully dynamics – in which conciliation is always the wrong course of action, because bullies perceive it as weakness and just punch harder the next time – he has broken that arc and has likely bent it backward for at least a generation.

*   *   *

When Dr. King spoke of the great arc bending toward justice, he did not mean that we should wait for it to bend.

*   *   *

IN contrast, when faced with the greatest economic crisis, the greatest levels of economic inequality, and the greatest levels of corporate influence on politics since the Depression, Barack Obama stared into the eyes of history and chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it.  He never explained that decision to the public – a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it.  Had the president chosen to bend the arc of history, he would have told the public the story of the destruction wrought by the dismantling of the New Deal regulations that had protected them for more than half a century.  He would have offered them a counternarrative of how to fix the problem other than the politics of appeasement, one that emphasized creating economic demand and consumer confidence by putting consumers back to work.  He would have had to stare down those who had wrecked the economy, and he would have had to tolerate their hatred if not welcome it.  But the arc of his temperament just didn’t bend that far.

But why did Obama turn out to be such a disappointment?  Is he simply weak – or is Obama actually the inverse Franklin Delano Roosevelt described by David Sirota as “Bizarro FDR”?  From his unique perspective as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Westen is well-qualified to provide us with a valid opinion.  After first expressing the requisite ethical disclaimer (rarely heard from TV and radio “shrinks”) that he would “resist the temptation to diagnose at a distance”, Westen put on his “strategic consultant” hat to “venture some hypotheses”:

The most charitable explanation is that he and his advisers have succumbed to a view of electoral success to which many Democrats succumb – that “centrist” voters like “centrist” politicians.  Unfortunately, reality is more complicated.  Centrist voters prefer honest politicians who help them solve their problems.  A second possibility is that he is simply not up to the task by virtue of his lack of experience and a character defect that might not have been so debilitating at some other time in history. Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography:  that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted “present” (instead of “yea” or “nay”) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.

A somewhat less charitable explanation is that we are a nation that is being held hostage not just by an extremist Republican Party but also by a president who either does not know what he believes or is willing to take whatever position he thinks will lead to his re-election.

*   *   *

Or perhaps, like so many politicians who come to Washington, he has already been consciously or unconsciously corrupted by a system that tests the souls even of people of tremendous integrity, by forcing them to dial for dollars – in the case of the modern presidency, for hundreds of millions of dollars.

With the passing of time, the likelihood that Barack Obama will be a single-term President increases dramatically because Americans are now scrutinizing him from a more judicious perspective.  Who will become the Independent candidate to return that forgotten emotion of hope to the disillusioned electorate?


 

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Widespread Disappointment With Financial Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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


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Obama 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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Damage Control

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December 17, 2009

Matt Taibbi hit another grand slam with his recent Rolling Stone article: “Obama’s Big Sellout”.  It was another classic work in his unique style.  The ugly truth it drove home was that Barack Obama used a “bait and switch” tactic in his Presidential campaign:  promising to reform Wall Street — until the day after he got elected — at which time he immediately jumped into bed with the culprits of the financial crisis.  The reaction of the Obama apologists to the Rolling Stone piece involved the usual tactic of attacking the messenger (in this case:  Taibbi himself).  It didn’t work.  The best way to see how this played out should begin with a reading of  Taibbi’s retort to a critique appearing in The American Prospect — a feeble attempt to demonstrate that Taibbi got his facts wrong.  A neutral judge, Felix Salmon of Reuters, then stepped in and ruled in favor of Taibbi.  The online responses to Felix Salmon’s essay are a great read.  At the Open Left website, David Sirota upbraided Taibbi’s critics, who spanned the political spectrum — many of whom expressed condescension at the “naïve” decision of an outside-the-beltway reporter to expose the breach of a campaign promise:

It’s certainly true that a lot of politicians’ words mean nothing – but if reporters start treating that as a non-newsworthy assumption in their coverage, then the whole journalistic system becomes a joke – a miasma of personality profiles and puff pieces that assumes that the only thing that must be valued in politics is personal intangibles like “charisma” and “charm” and “toughness” and all those other incessant cliches. And what a joke that makes of our democracy.  In a republic where we only get to vote our politicians in or out every few years, all we have to go on are their promises.  If we now must assume their promises aren’t true, and attack people for being “naïve” for daring to try to hold them to their promises, then we’ve made a joke of our whole political system.

Matt Taibbi’s article immediately forced the White House into a damage control mode.  Another softball interview was immediately set up with Steve Croft of 60 Minutes, wherein Obama attempted to redeem his false image as an adversary of the Wall Street investment banks.  The President took advantage of that opportunity to present himself as an antagonist of those he described as “fat cats”.  On the following day, Obama held a meeting in the White House cabinet room with some banking representatives who found the event important enough to attend.  Immediately afterward, Charlie Gasparino revealed the backstory behind Obama’s meeting with the bankers.  After informing us that the administration provided the bankers with Obama’s “talking points” in advance of the meeting, Gasparino disclosed this:

.  .  . people with first-hand knowledge of the sitdown said, it was a heavily scripted affair — with none of the fireworks Obama displays in public.

*   *   *

Said one CEO who attended:  “I expected to be taken to the woodshed, but the tone was quite the opposite.”

Said another senior exec with knowledge of the meeting: “The whole thing was so telegraphed that not much was accomplished, other than giving Obama a PR stunt.   . . .  He might have sounded mean on ‘60 Minutes,’ but during the meeting he was a hell of a lot nicer.”

Many commentators were quick to point out that by the time Obama started talking tough about “fat cats”, he had already given them all they wanted by allowing them to pay back their TARP loans on an expedited basis.  As Henry Blodget explained for The Business Insider:

And in case you missed what is really going on here, the banks that repaid TARP are now getting all the benefits of government help with none of the drawbacks.  They just ditched the bad stuff — namely, pay caps — and kept the good stuff (implicit bond guarantees, subsidized super-low interest rates, no obligation to do anything for anyone).  Obama can jawbone all he wants about “fat cats,” but that’s all he can do.

At The Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein bemoaned the fact that the TARP beneficiaries had been “let off their leash”.  Pearlstein expressed concern that this move created the potential for more problems in the future:

By rushing to cash in their chips, however, the administration not only gave up political leverage and additional profit, but took the risk that one or more of the banks may find that it can’t make it on its own.  While the financial system has rebounded faster than anyone could have imagined, potential threats still loom — a further collapse of commercial real estate, for example, or a string of sovereign debt defaults.  And bank profits, while having rebounded, remain significantly dependent on the availability of cheap funding from the Federal Reserve and other central banks that cannot be expected to last indefinitely.

The administration’s damage control effort turned out to be worthless.  With his centerpiece healthcare reform effort floundering in the Senate, Obama the President is appearing to be significantly less effective than Obama the candidate.  The President’s critics have been quick to pounce.  George Will noted that Obama has “seen his job approval vary inversely with his ubiquity”.  The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin alleged that Obama “doesn’t look like he cares that big chunks of the country, left, right and center, are giving up on him.”  However, the best analysis of the confidence crisis afflicting the Obama Presidency came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com.  Gerstein observed that the new Preisdent’s leadership style was to blame — something Gerstein described as “the Reverse Roosevelt:  Talk boldly and carry a toothpick.”  While debunking the administration’s claim that it had lost the leverage it had over Wall Street with the TARP paybacks, Gerstein argued that such an excuse “doesn’t pass the laugh test” because the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the country.  The task Obama faces is to cultivate a leadership style that will be useful in confronting the challenges he undertook when he assumed office:

For those center dwellers, the issue is not that Obama is too liberal or too pragmatic (the chief complaints of the noisemakers on the left and right), but that he is not effective enough.  They question whether he has what it takes to get results:  to find the right balance on health care, to admit and fix the inadequacies of the stimulus, to begin taming the deficit without impeding growth.  It is a crisis of confidence that at its heart is, as Brookings scholar and former Clinton adviser Bill Galston points out, a crisis of competence.

*   *   *

But regardless of the reasons, Obama signed up for these missions, and his ability to succeed in them will largely hinge on whether he can grow as a leader.  Can he overcome his inhibitions, whatever their cause, and learn from the legacies of our most effective presidents about how to wield the full power of his office?  He clearly knows how to don the velvet glove (often with substantial impact) — will he come to understand when to unleash the iron fist?

Obama’s pattern so far is far from encouraging.  But I would not give up hope for growth.

It appears as though we are back to the themes of “hope” and “change”.  This time we’re hoping that Obama will change.



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The Longest Year

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September 14, 2009

As I write this, President Obama is preparing another fine-sounding, yet empty speech.  His subject this time is financial reform.  You may recall last week’s lofty address to the joint session of Congress, promoting his latest, somewhat-less-nebulous approach to healthcare reform.  He assured the audience that the so-called “public option” (wherein a government-created entity competes with private sector healthcare insurers) would be an integral part of the plan.  Within a week, two pieces of political toast from the Democratic Party (Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) set about undermining that aspect of the healthcare reform agenda.  This is just one reason why, on November 2, 2010, the people who elected Democrats in 2006 and 2008 will be taking a “voters’ holiday”, paving the way for Republican majorities in the Senate and House.  The moral lapse involving the public option was documented by David Sirota for Danny Schechter’s NewsDissector blog:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the first time yesterday suggested she may be backing off her support of the public option – the government-run health plan that the private insurance industry is desperately trying to kill.  According to CNN, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “said they would support any provision that increases competition and accessibility for health insurance – whether or not it is the public option favored by most Democrats.”

This announcement came just hours before Steve Elmendorf, a registered UnitedHealth lobbyist and the head of UnitedHealth’s lobbying firm Elmendorf Strategies, blasted this email invitation throughout Washington, D.C. I just happened to get my hands on a copy of the invitation from a source – check it out:

From: Steve Elmendorf [mailto:steve@elmendorfstrategies.com]
Sent: Friday, September 11, 2009 8:31 AM
Subject: event with Speaker Pelosi at my home
You are cordially invited to a reception with

Speaker of the House
Nancy Pelosi

Thursday, September 24, 2009
6:30pm ~ 8:00pm

At the home of
Steve Elmendorf
2301 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Apt. 7B
Washington, D.C.

$5,000 PAC
$2,400 Individual

Again, Elmendorf is a registered lobbyist for UnitedHealth, and his firm’s website brags about its work for UnitedHealth on its website.

The sequencing here is important: Pelosi makes her announcement and then just hours later, the fundraising invitation goes out. Coincidental?  I’m guessing no – these things rarely ever are.

I wrote a book a few years ago called Hostile Takeover whose premise was that corruption and legalized bribery has become so widespread that nobody in Washington even tries to hide it. This is about as good an example of that truism as I’ve ever seen.

Whatever President Obama proposes to accomplish in terms of financial reform will surely be met with a similar fate.  Worse yet, his appointment of “Turbo” Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary and his nomination of Ben Bernanke to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman are the best signals of the President’s true intention:  Preservation of the status quo, regardless of the cost to the taxpayers.

On this first anniversary of the demise of Lehman Brothers and the acknowledgment of the financial crisis, many commentators have noted the keen observations by Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, published in the May, 2009 issue of The Atlantic.  The theme of Johnson’s article, “The Quiet Coup” was that the current economic and financial crisis in the United States is “shockingly reminiscent” of those experienced in emerging markets (i.e. banana republics and proto-capitalist regimes).  The devil behind all the details in setting these systems upright after a financial crisis is the age-old concept of moral hazard or more simply:  sleaze.  In making the comparison of the United States to the emerging market countries he encountered at the IMF, Mr. Johnson began this way:

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity:  elite business interests — financiers, in the case of the U.S. — played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse.  More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive.  The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Here are a few more passages from “The Quiet Coup” that our political leaders would be well-advised to consider:

Even leaving aside fairness to taxpayers, the government’s velvet-glove approach with the banks is deeply troubling, for one simple reason:  it is inadequate to change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms, at a time when that behavior must change.  As an unnamed senior bank official said to The New York Times last fall, “It doesn’t matter how much Hank Paulson gives us, no one is going to lend a nickel until the economy turns.”  But there’s the rub:  the economy can’t recover until the banks are healthy and willing to lend.

*   *   *

The second problem the U.S. faces—the power of the oligarchy— is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending.  And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple:  break the oligarchy.

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail. Nationalization and re-privatization would not change that; while the replacement of the bank executives who got us into this crisis would be just and sensible, ultimately, the swapping-out of one set of powerful managers for another would change only the names of the oligarchs.

Ideally, big banks should be sold in medium-size pieces, divided regionally or by type of business.  Where this proves impractical—since we’ll want to sell the banks quickly— they could be sold whole, but with the requirement of being broken up within a short time.  Banks that remain in private hands should also be subject to size limitations.

Mr. Johnson pointed out the need to overhaul our current antitrust laws – not because any single institution controls so much market share as to influence prices – but because the failure of any one “to big to fail” bank could collapse the entire financial system.

One of my favorite reporters at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, observed the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers failure with an essay that focused, in large part, on a recent paper by Edward Kane, a finance professor at Boston College, who created the expression: “zombie bank” in 1987.   This month, the Networks Financial Institute at Indiana State University published a policy brief by Dr. Kane on the subject of financial regulation.  In her article:  “But Who Is Watching Regulators?”, Ms. Morgenson summed up Professor Kane’s paper in the following way:

This ugly financial episode we’ve all had to live through makes clear, Mr. Kane says, that taxpayers must protect themselves against two things:  the corrupting influence of bureaucratic self-interest among regulators and the political clout wielded by the large institutions they are supposed to police. Finally, he argues, taxpayers must demand that the government publicize the costs of efforts taken to save the financial system from itself.

Although you may have seen widely-publicized news reports about an “overwhelming number” of academicians opposing the current efforts to require transparency from the Federal Reserve, Professor Kane provides a strong argument in favor of Fed transparency as well as scrutiny of the Treasury and the other government entities enmeshed the complex system of bailouts created within the past year.

At thirty-eight pages, his paper is quite a deep read.  Nevertheless, it’s packed with great criticism of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury.  We need more of this and when someone of Professor Kane’s stature provides it, there had better be people in high places taking it very seriously.  The following are just a few of the many astute observations made by Dr. Kane:

Agency elitism would be evidenced by the extent to which its leaders use crises to establish interpretations and precedents that cover up its mistakes, inflate its powers, expand its discretion, and extend its jurisdiction. According to this standard, Fed efforts to use the crisis as a platform for self-congratulation and for securing enlarged systemic-risk authority sidetracks rather than promotes effective reform.

*   *   *

A financial institution’s incentive to disobey, circumvent or lobby against a particular rule increases with the opportunity cost of compliance. This means that, to sort out the welfare consequences of any regulatory program, we must assess not only the costs and benefits of compliance, but include the costs and benefits of circumvention as well.

*   *   *

Realistically, every government-managed program of disaster relief is a strongly lobbied and nontransparent tax-transfer scheme for redistributing wealth and shifting risk away from the disaster’s immediate victims.  A financial crisis externalizes – in margin and other collateral calls, in depositor runs, and in bank and borrower pleas for government assistance – a political and economic struggle over when and how losses accumulated in corporate balance sheets and in the portfolios of insolvent financial institutions are to be unwound and reallocated across society.  At the same time, insolvent firms and government rescuers share a common interest in mischaracterizing the size and nature of the redistribution so as to minimize taxpayer unrest.

In principle, lenders and investors that voluntarily assume real and financial risks should reap the gains and bear the losses their risk exposures generate.  However, in crises, losers pressure government officials to rescue them and to induce other parties to share their pain.

The advocates of crony capitalism and their tools (our politicians and regulatory bureaucrats) need to know that we are on to them.  If the current administration is willing to facilitate more of the same, then it’s time for some new candidates to step forward.




The World Holds Its Breath

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January 19, 2009

All over the world, people are waiting with abated breath as the Obama Presidency begins.  Some thought it would never happen.  I have often wondered whether, at the last minute, the Bush-Cheney junta might decide that it does not want to give up its authority.  Would they contrive some sort of “national security emergency” as a pretext for declaring martial law and suspending the Constitution?  Such a tactic would be entirely consistent with what we have seen for the past eight years.  Surely, there must be some provision buried in the so-called “Patriot Act” allowing the Bush-Cheney regime to continue, despite the expiration of its Constitutionally-prescribed existence.  Constitutional restrictions to unlimited executive power have been ignored by the outgoing administration for the past eight years.  Why should now be any different?  My skepticism on this matter will continue until Barack Obama completes his recitation of the Presidential Oath.

In the mean time, there are those who question whether President Obama will really deliver on his promise of change.  From the liberal side of the political spectrum, plenty of opinions have been published (by reputable commentators) expressing apprehension as to what likely will happen and what actually may not happen during Obama’s tenure in the White House.

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.”

Meanwhile, there is worldwide concern about what Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can accomplish in the foreign relations and anti-terrorism arenas.  As discussed in an editorial from the January 18 Times of London:

Mr Obama’s biggest immediate challenge is in Afghanistan.  The president is hoping a troop surge, which he opposed in Iraq, will work. However, the prospect of a military solution in Afghanistan is remote and he may learn that the hard way.  In the meantime, he has to hope Iraq does not flare up again and that the Iran nuclear question remains one for diplomacy rather than military conflict.  His drive for a Middle East peace deal is not the first by a US president and nor will it be the last.

As the sun finally rises over the Obama Presidency, there are still plenty of clouds in the sky.  Does this mean we are in for more turmoil?  Some people might take this as a sign that it’s about to start raining money.

Barack Anxiety Builds On The Left

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December 8, 2008

With each passing day, we see an increase of editorial essays with the same theme:  After winning the election, will Barack Obama abandon the liberal or progressive base of the Democratic Party?  Some of the more strident ideologues from the liberal side of the spectrum are becoming more vocal in expressing anxiety about where the Obama Administration might take us.  This distress results from the President-elect’s recent naming of Cabinet and other high-level appointees.

For example, On December 1, Katrina vanden Heuvel posted an article on The Nation website, expressing dismay over Obama’s decision to allow Robert Gates to continue serving as Secretary of Defense under the new administration.  The criticism she voiced about the new foreign policy / national security team exemplifies the perspective of many writers concerning the entire list of appointments disclosed by Obama so far:

For Obama, who’s said he wants to be challenged by his advisors, wouldn’t it have made sense to include at least one person on the foreign policy/national security team who would challenge him with some new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century?  Isn’t the idea of a broader bandwidth of ideas also at the heart of this ballyhooed “team of rivals” stuff?

Commentator David Sirota has been quite vocal in articulating his disappointment over Obama’s cabinet picks.  Back on November 19, he had this to say on the Campaign for America’s Future website:

Look, I’m all for “inclusion” – but let’s also remember, the most comprehensive post-election poll shows that a whopping 70 percent of Americans want conservatives to bend to Obama’s agenda, not the other way around.  And so what about the other side of the “team?”  If “Team of Rivals” = “Bipartisanship,” shouldn’t there be some full-on progressives in some very powerful positions?  Wouldn’t that complete the “team” in “Team of Rivals” and the “bi” in “bipartisan?”  Or are we really not going to see a “team” nor “bipartisanship” – but merely lockstep corporatism/conservatism disguised with the latest happy sounding terms from the (David) Broder dictionary?

Robert Scheer voiced similar uncertainty about Obama’s appointments in a December 2 posting on the Truthdig website:

Yet, it all does hang on him.  Yes, Obama.  The superstar, and not that supporting cast of retreads from a failed past that have popped up in his administration in the making.  Now that we have the list of his top economic and foreign policy picks — mostly a collection of folks who wouldn’t know change if it slapped them upside the head — we’ve got to hope that it’s Obama who is using them, and not the other way around.

*   *   *

The problem with Obama’s national security team is not that he has picked hawks whom he cannot control; they are all professionals, who took the job expecting to go along with his game plan.  The danger here, as with his economic advisers, is only that Obama may stop being Obama, the agent of change who electrified a nation.

The analyses of Obama’s loyalty to the progressive base of the Democratic Party were not restricted to the liberal-oriented blogs.  John Harwood’s article in the December 6 New York Times provided us with a more optimistic view of what we might expect from the Obama Administration:

All this raises the question: can Mr. Obama indeed be forging the new style of politics he invoked so often during the election — one that transcends the partisan divisions that have marked recent administrations?  If so, what will he replace it with, a bipartisan style of governance that splits the differences between competing ideological camps, or a “post-partisan” politics that narrows gaps between red and blue or even renders them irrelevant?

Actually, insiders in Mr. Obama’s emerging team foresee a third option:  a series of left-leaning programs that draw on Americans’ desire for action and also on Mr. Obama’s moderate, even conservative, temperament, to hurdle the ideological obstacles that have lately paralyzed Washington.

Robert Creamer demonstrated a similarly positive outlook in his November 24 posting on the Campaign for America’s Future website:

Barack Obama will not govern from the “center right”, but he will govern from the “center”.  That’s not because he is “moving to the center”.  It’s because the center of American politics has changed.  It has moved where the American people are.  It once again resides in the traditional progressive center that has defined America’s promise since Thomas Jefferson penned its founding document over 200 years ago.

As we approach the initial days of the Obama Administration, it seems amusing to observe more squeamishness about our next President, coming from those on the political left than from those on the right.  The McCain campaign’s old theme:  “Who is Barack Obama?” seems to be lingering in the minds of many Obama supporters.  Saturday Night Live taught a lesson to all of the worriers, with the sketch:  “Obama Plays It Cool” .  Fear not, ye of leftist leanings!  Just stay cool.