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Cliff Notes

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On May 22, the Congressional Budget Office released its report on how the United States can avoid going off the “fiscal cliff” on January 1, 2013.  The report is entitled, “Economic Effects of Reducing the Fiscal Restraint That Is Scheduled to Occur in 2013”.  Forget about the Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012.  The real disaster is scheduled for eleven days later.  The CBO provided a brief summary of the 10-page report – what you might call the Cliff Notes version.  Here are some highlights:

In fact, under current law, increases in taxes and, to a lesser extent, reductions in spending will reduce the federal budget deficit dramatically between 2012 and 2013 – a development that some observers have referred to as a “fiscal cliff” – and will dampen economic growth in the short term.

*   *   *

Under those fiscal conditions, which will occur under current law, growth in real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in calendar year 2013 will be just 0.5 percent, CBO expects – with the economy projected to contract at an annual rate of 1.3 percent in the first half of the year and expand at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in the second half.  Given the pattern of past recessions as identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research, such a contraction in output in the first half of 2013 would probably be judged to be a recession.

As the complete version of the report explained, the consequences of abruptly-imposed, draconian austerity measures while the economy is in a state of anemic growth in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, could have a devastating impact because incomes will drop, shrinking the tax base and available revenue – the life blood of the United States government:

The weakening of the economy that will result from that fiscal restraint will lower taxable incomes and, therefore, revenues, and it will increase spending in some categories – for unemployment insurance, for instance.

An interesting analysis of the CBO report was provided by Robert Oak of the Economic Populist website.  He began with a description of the cliff itself:

What the CBO is referring to is the fiscal cliff.  Remember when the budget crisis happened, resulting in the United States losing it’s AAA credit rating?  Then, Congress and this administration just punted, didn’t compromise, or better yet, base recommendations on actual economic theory, and allowed automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion across the board, to take place instead.  These budget cuts will be dramatic and happen in 2012 and 2013.

Spending cuts, especially sudden ones, actually weaken economic growth.  This is why austerity has caused a disaster in Europe.  Draconian cuts have pushed their economies into not just recessions, but depressions.

The conclusion reached by Robert Oak was particularly insightful:

This report should infuriate Republicans, who earlier wanted to silence the CBO because they were telling the GOP their policies would hurt the economy in so many words.  But maybe not.  Unfortunately the CBO is not breaking down tax cuts, when there is ample evidence tax cuts for rich individuals do nothing for economic growth.  Bottom line though, the CBO is right on in their forecast, draconian government spending cuts will cause an anemic economy to contract.

Although the CBO did offer a good solution for avoiding a drive off the fiscal cliff, it remains difficult to imagine how our dysfunctional government could ever implement these measures:

Or, if policymakers wanted to minimize the short-run costs of narrowing the deficit very quickly while also minimizing the longer-run costs of allowing large deficits to persist, they could enact a combination of policies:  changes in taxes and spending that would widen the deficit in 2013 relative to what would occur under current law but that would reduce deficits later in the decade relative to what would occur if current policies were extended for a prolonged period.

The foregoing passage was obviously part of what Robert Oak had in mind when he mentioned that the CBO report would “infuriate Republicans”.  Any plans to “widen the deficit” would be subject to the same righteous indignation as an abortion festival or a national holiday for gay weddings.  Nevertheless, Mitt Romney accidentally acknowledged the validity of the logic underlying the CBO’s concern.  Bill Black had some fun with Romney’s admission by writing a fantastic essay on the subject:

Romney has periodic breakdowns when asked questions about the economy because he sometimes forgets the need to lie.  He forgets that he is supposed to treat austerity as the epitome of economic wisdom.  When he responds quickly to questions about austerity he slips into default mode and speaks the truth – adopting austerity during the recovery from a Great Recession would (as in Europe) throw the nation back into recession or depression.  The latest example is his May 23, 2012 interview with Mark Halperin in Time magazine.

Halperin: Why not in the first year, if you’re elected — why not in 2013, go all the way and propose the kind of budget with spending restraints, that you’d like to see after four years in office?  Why not do it more quickly?

Romney: Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%.  That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression.  So I’m not going to do that, of course.”

Romney explains that austerity, during the recovery from a Great Recession, would cause catastrophic damage to our nation.  The problem, of course, is that the Republican congressional leadership is committed to imposing austerity on the nation and Speaker Boehner has just threatened that Republicans will block the renewal of the debt ceiling in order to extort Democrats to agree to austerity – severe cuts to social programs.  Romney knows this could “throw us into recession or depression” and says he would never follow such a policy.

*   *   *

Later in the interview, Romney claims that federal budgetary deficits are “immoral.”  But he has just explained that using austerity for the purported purpose of ending a deficit would cause a recession or depression.  A recession or depression would make the deficit far larger.  That means that Romney should be denouncing austerity as “immoral” (as well as suicidal) because it will not simply increase the deficit (which he claims to find “immoral” because of its impact on children) but also dramatically increase unemployment, poverty, child poverty and hunger, and harm their education by causing more teachers to lose their jobs and more school programs to be cut.

Mitt Romney is beginning to sound as though he has his own inner Biden, who spontaneously speaks out in an unrestrained manner, sending party officials into “damage control” mode.

This could turn out to be an interesting Presidential campaign, after all.



 

Obama Presidency Continues To Self-Destruct

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It’s been almost a year since the “Velma Moment”.  On September 20, 2010, President Obama appeared at a CNBC town hall meeting in Washington.  One of the audience members, Velma Hart, posed a question to the President, which was emblematic of the plight experienced by many 2008 Obama supporters.  Peggy Noonan had some fun with the event in her article, “The Enraged vs. The Exhausted” which characterized the 2010 elections as a battle between those two emotional factions.  The “Velma Moment” exposed Obama’s political vulnerability as an aloof leader, lacking the ability to emotionally connect with his supporters:

The president looked relieved when she stood.  Perhaps he thought she might lob a sympathetic question that would allow him to hit a reply out of the park.  Instead, and in the nicest possible way, Velma Hart lobbed a hand grenade.

“I’m a mother. I’m a wife.  I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle-class Americans.  And quite frankly I’m exhausted.  I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are.”  She said, “The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family.”  She said, “My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives.  But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed.”

The President experienced another “Velma Moment” on Monday.  This time, it was Maureen Dowd who had some fun describing the confrontation:

After assuring Obama that she was a supporter, an Iowa mother named Emily asked the president at a town hall at the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah what had gone wrong.

*   *   *

“So when you ran for office you built a tremendous amount of trust with the American people, that you seemed like someone who wouldn’t move the bar on us,” she said.  “And it seems, especially in the last year, as if your negotiating tactics have sort of cut away at that trust by compromising some key principles that we believed in, like repealing the tax cut, not fighting harder for single-payer.  Even Social Security and Medicare seemed on the line when we were dealing with the debt ceiling.  So I’m just curious, moving forward, what prevents you from taking a harder negotiating stance, being that it seems that the Republicans are taking a really hard stance?”

President Obama can no longer blame the Republicans and Fox News for his poor approval ratings.  He has become his own worst enemy.  As for what Obama has been doing wrong – the title of Andrew Malcolm’s recent piece for the Los Angeles Times summed it up quite well:  “On Day 938 of his presidency, Obama says he’ll have a jobs plan in a month or so”.

Lydia Saad of the Gallup Organization provided this report on the President’s most recent approval ratings:

A new low of 26% of Americans approve of President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy, down 11 percentage points since Gallup last measured it in mid-May and well below his previous low of 35% in November 2010.

Obama earns similarly low approval for his handling of the federal budget deficit (24%) and creating jobs (29%).

*   *   *

President Obama’s approval rating has dwindled in recent weeks to the point that it is barely hugging the 40% line. Three months earlier, it approached or exceeded 50%.

The voters have finally caught on to the fact that Barack Obama’s foremost mission is to serve as a tool for Wall Street.  In Monday’s edition of The Washington Post, Zachary Goldfarb gave us a peek at Obama’s latest gift to the banksters:  a plan to provide a government guarantee of mortgage backed securities:

President Obama has directed a small team of advisers to develop a proposal that would keep the government playing a major role in the nation’s mortgage market, extending a federal loan subsidy for most home buyers, according to people familiar with the matter.

The administration’s reaction to curiosity about the plan was a tip-off that the whole thing stinks.  Mr. Goldfarb’s article included the official White House retort, which was based on the contention that the controversial proposal is just one of three options outlined earlier this year in an administration white paper concerning reform of the housing finance system:

“It is simply false that there has been a decision to move forward with any particular option,” said Matt Vogel, a White House spokesman.  “All three options remain under active consideration and we are deepening our analysis around how each would potentially be implemented.  No recommendation has been made to the president by his economic advisers.”

And if you believe that, you might be interested in buying some real estate located in  . . .

Zachary Goldfarb explained the plan:

Fannie, Freddie or other successor firms would charge a fee to mortgage lenders and banks and use the money to create an insurance pool to cover losses on mortgage securities caused by defaults on the underlying loans.  The government would be the last line of defense in case of another housing market meltdown, using taxpayer money to cover losses only if the insurance pool ran dry.

The Washington Post report inspired economist Dean Baker to expose the ugly truth about this scheme:

It would be difficult to find an economic rationale for this policy other than subsidizing the financial industry. The government can and does directly subsidize the purchase of homes through the mortgage interest deduction.  This can be made more generous and better targeted toward low and moderate income families by capping it and converting it into a tax credit (e.g. all homeowners can deduct 15 percent of the interest paid on mortgages of $300,000 or less from their taxes).

There is no obvious reason to have an additional subsidy through the system of mortgage finance.  Analysis by Mark Zandi showed that the subsidy provided by a government guarantee would largely translate into higher home prices.  This would leave monthly mortgage payments virtually unaffected.  The diversion of capital from elsewhere in the economy would mean slower economic growth and would kill jobs for auto workers, steel workers and other workers in the manufacturing sector.

For these reasons, if President Obama was really against big government and job killing measures, he would oppose this new scheme to subsidize mortgage securitization.  On the other hand, if the goal is to ensure high profits and big salaries for top executives in the financial sector, then a government subsidy for mortgage securitization is good policy.

Frustration with the inevitability that the 2012 Presidential Election will ultimately become a choice between two corporatists has inspired a movement to encourage a Democratic Primary challenge to Obama.  The organization – StopHoping.org – is based on this simple objective:

The majority of U.S. citizens favor protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; taxing the rich; cutting military spending; and protecting the environment.  We don’t have a candidate . . . yet.  Potential candidates supported on this site will be notified and encouraged to run.

I hope they succeed!


 

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Disappointing Diatribe From A Disillusioned Dionne

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Poor E.J. Dionne!  He is suffering through the same transition process experienced by many Obama supporters who have been confronted with the demise of the President’s phony “populist” image.  The stages one passes through when coping with such an “image death” are identical to those described in the Model of Coping with Dying, created in 1969 by Psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. For example, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher was passing through the “Bargaining” stage – at which point he suggested that if we elect Obama to a second term in the White House, the President will finally stand up for all of those abandoned principles which candidate Obama advocated during the 2008 campaign.  As we saw during Friday’s episode of Maher’s Real Time program on HBO, the comedian has now progressed to the “Acceptance” stage, as demonstrated by his abandonment of any “hope” that Obama’s pseudo-populist image might still be viable.

Meanwhile E.J. Dionne appears to be transitioning from the “Denial” stage to the “Anger” stage – as exemplified by his dwelling on the issue of who is to blame for this image death.  Dionne’s conclusion is that “Centrists” are to blame.  Dionne’s recent Washington Post column began with the premise that “centrism has become the enemy of moderation”.  While attempting to process his anger, Dionne has expounded some tortured logic, rambling through an elaborate “distinction without a difference” comparison of “Centrists” with “Moderates”, based on the notion that Moderates are good and Centrists are bad.   Dionne’s article was cross-posted at the Truthdig blog, where many commentors criticized his argument.  One reason why so many Truthdig readers had less trouble accepting the demise of Obama’s false “populist” image, could have been their exposure to the frequent criticism of Obama appearing at that website – as exemplified by this cartoon by Mr. Fish, which appeared immediately to the left of Dionne’s article on Saturday.

An easy way to make sense of Dionne’s thought process at this “Anger” stage is to replace any references to “centrists” or “centrism” by inserting Obama’s name at those points.  For example:

Because centrism Obama is reactive, you never really know what a centrist Obama believes.  Centrists are Obama is constantly packing their his bags and chasing off to find a new location as the political conversation veers one way or another.

*   *   *

Yet the center’s devotees, in politics and in the media, Obama fear(s) saying outright that by any past standards—or by the standards of any other democracy—the views of this new right wing are very, very extreme and entirely impractical.  Centrists Obama worr(ies) that saying this might make them him look “leftist” or “partisan.”

Instead, the center Obama bends.  It He concocts deficit plans that include too little new tax revenue.  It He accepts cuts in programs that would have seemed radical and draconian even a couple of years ago.  It He pretends this crisis is caused equally by conservatives and liberals when it is perfectly clear that there would be no crisis at all if the right hadn’t glommed onto the debt ceiling as the (totally inappropriate) vehicle for its anti-government dreams.

It’s time for moderates to abandon centrism Obama and stop shifting with the prevailing winds.  They need to state plainly what they’re for, stand their ground, and pull the argument their way. Yes, they would risk looking to “the left” of where the center Obama is now – but only because conservatives have pulled it him so far their way.

Toward the end of the piece we see how Dionne is getting some glimpses of the fact that Obama is the problem:

But when this ends, it’s Obama who’ll need a reset.  At heart, he’s a moderate who likes balance.  Yet Americans have lost track of what he’s really for. Occasionally you wonder if he’s lost track himself.  He needs to remind us, and perhaps himself, why he wants to be our president.

In reality, Barack Obama was able to deceive Americans by convincing them that he was for populist causes rather than corporatist goals.  The President never “lost track of what he’s really for”.  He has always been Barry O. Tool – a corporatist.

At the conclusion of Dionne’s essay we learn that – contrary to what we were told by Harry Truman – “the buck” stops at the desks of Obama’s “centrist advisers”:

His advisers are said to be obsessed with the political center, but this leads to a reactive politics that won’t motivate the hope crowd that elected Obama in the first place.  Neither will it alter a discourse whose terms were set during most of this debt fight by the right.

We’ve heard the “blame the advisers” rationale from others who passed through the Kübler-Ross phases at earlier points during the Obama Presidency:  There were those who sought to blame Rahm Emanuel when the “public option” was jettisoned from Obama’s healthcare bill.  We then heard from the “Hope fiends” who blamed Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Peter Orszag for Obama’s refusal to seriously consider the “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie megabanks through temporary receivership.  In fact, it was Obama making those decisions all along.

I’m confident that once E.J. Dionne reaches the “Acceptance” stage, we will hear some refreshing, centered criticism of President Obama.


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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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Ignoring The Smart People

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The clowns in Washington seem to be going out of their way to ignore the advice of respected economists as they focus on deficit reduction while ignoring the worsening unemployment crisis.  The fact that mainstream news outlets are oblivious to the consequences of foolish economic policy doesn’t really help.  President Obama now finds himself wedded to a policy of economic destruction, while at the mercy of his opponents, simply because he ignored the good advice he was receiving back in 2009.

The urgency of our current predicament is lost on the asshats vested with the responsibility and authority to implement a “course correction”.  As I pointed out last month, bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO made an effort to debunk the myth that balancing the budget “will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years”.  More recently, Princeton economics professor and former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Blinder, wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal entitled, “Our National Jobs Emergency”.  After discussing the most recent non-farm payrolls report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Professor Blinder made this observation:

The horrific June employment number made it two in a row.  With the latest revisions, job growth in May is now estimated to have clocked in at only 25,000 jobs.  So that’s 25,000 and 18,000 in consecutive months.  Given the immense size of total U.S. payroll employment (around 131 million) and the sampling error in the survey, those numbers are effectively zero.  Job creation has stopped for two months.

If we were at 5% unemployment, two bad payroll reports in a row would be of some concern yet tolerable.  But when viewed against the background of 9%-plus unemployment, they are catastrophic.

*   *   *

All this adds up to a national jobs emergency.  Tragically, however, it is not being treated as such.  When is the last time you heard one of our national leaders propose a serious job-creating program?

The operative word here is “serious.”  Every day brings new proposals to slash government spending.  But as I noted on this page last month, those are ways to kill jobs, not create them.  As a matter of fact, despite all the cries of “big government” or even “socialism,” public-sector employment has been falling.

Fortunately, Professor Blinder had some good ideas for private-sector job creation.  One such idea was a tax credit for firms that create new jobs:

As one concrete example, companies might be offered a tax credit equal to 10% of the increase in their wage bills (over 2011 levels, say).  No increase, no reward.

You might think Republicans would embrace an idea like that. After all, it’s a business tax cut and all the new jobs would be in the private sector.  But you’d be wrong.  Frankly, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s seen as “left-wing social engineering.”

Professor Blinder then proposed an alternative:

Suppose we allow firms to repatriate profits at some super-low tax rate, but only to the extent that they increase their wage payments subject to Social Security.  For example, if XYZ Corporation paid wages covered by Social Security of $1.5 billion in 2011, and then boosted that amount to $1.6 billion in 2012, it would be allowed to repatriate $100 million at a tax rate of 5% or 10% instead of the usual 35% rate.  The tax savings to the company would thus be $25 million-$30 million for raising its payroll by $100 million.  That’s a powerful incentive.

Did anyone in Washington pay serious attention to Professor Blinder’s Wall Street Journal article  . . .  or were they all too busy shorting Treasuries to give a damn?

Oxford-educated economist Martin Wolf wrote a piece for the Financial Times, in which he lamented the antics of those entrusted with the power of managing financial and economic policy:

It is not that tackling the US fiscal position is urgent.  At a time of private sector deleveraging, it is helpful.  The US is able to borrow on easy terms, with yields on 10-year bonds close to 3 per cent, as the few non-hysterics predicted.  The fiscal challenge is long term, not immediate.  A decision not to allow the government to borrow to finance the programmes Congress has already mandated would be insane…. Yet, astonishingly, many of the Republicans opposed to raising the US debt ceiling do not merely wish to curb federal spending:  they enthusiastically desire a default.  Either they have no idea how profound would be the shock to their country’s economy and society of a repudiation of debt legally contracted by their state, or they fall into the category of utopian revolutionaries, heedless of all consequences.

*   *   *

These are dangerous times.  The US may be on the verge of making among the biggest and least-necessary financial mistakes in world history.  The eurozone might be on the verge of a fiscal cum financial crisis that destroys not just the solvency of important countries but even the currency union and, at worst, much of the European project.  These times require wisdom and courage among those in charge of our affairs.  In the US, utopians of the right are seeking to smash the state that emerged from the 1930s and the second world war.  In Europe, politicians are dealing with the legacy of a utopian project which requires a degree of solidarity that their peoples do not feel.  How will these clashes between utopia and reality end? In late August, when I return from my break, we may know at least some of the answers.

At this point, those “answers” are beginning to look pretty scary.  Of course, the Republicans are not the only ones to blame.  Let’s take a look at the wonderful job Mike Whitney of CounterPunch did when he dropped the entire matter back onto President Obama’s lap:

How do you light a fire under Washington, that’s the question?  Is Congress even aware that we’re undergoing a major jobs crisis or are they too busy bickering over tax cuts for fatcats or how much money they can divert from Social Security to Wall Street?

Look; unemployment is over 9% and rising.  The states are firing tens of thousands of teachers and public employees every month because they need to balance their budgets and they’re not taking in enough revenue.  The stimulus is dwindling (which means that fiscal policy is actually contractionary in real terms) And the 10-year Treasury has dipped below 3 percent (as of Monday morning.)  In other words, the bond market is signaling “recession”, even while the dope in the White House is doing his utmost to slice $4 trillion off the deficits.

Does that make any sense?

Maybe if you’re Herbert Hoover, it does.  But it makes no sense at all if you were elected with a mandate to “change” the way Washington operates and put the country back to work.  Obama is just making a bad situation worse by gadding about in his golf togs blabbering about belt tightening.  It’s enough to make you sick.

Get with the program, Barry, or resign.  That would be even better.  Then maybe we can find someone who’s serious about running the country.

As I pointed out on November 4, 2010  . . .  someone has to challenge Obama for the 2012 Democratic nomination and I have someone in mind   .   .   .


 

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Another Great Idea From Ron Paul

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Congressman Ron Paul is one of the few original thinkers on Capitol Hill.  Sometimes he has great ideas, although at other times he might sound a little daft.  He recently grabbed some headlines by expressing the view that the United States “should declare bankruptcy”.  A June 28 CNN report focused on Paul’s agreement with the contention that if bankruptcy is the cure for Greece, it is also the cure for the United States.  However, as most economists will point out, the situation in Greece is not at all relevant to our situation because the United States issues its own currency and Greece is stuck with the euro, under the regime of the European Central Bank.  Anyone who can’t grasp that concept should read this posting by Cullen Roche at the Seeking Alpha website.

Nevertheless, economist Dean Baker picked up on one of Congressman Paul’s points, which – if followed through to its logical conclusion – could actually solve the debt ceiling impasse.  The remark by Ron Paul which inspired Dean Baker was a gripe about the $1.6 trillion in Treasury securities that the Federal Reserve now holds as a result of two quantitative easing programs:

“We owe, like, $1.6 trillion because the Federal Reserve bought that debt, so we have to work hard to pay the interest to the Federal Reserve,” Paul said. “We don’t, I mean, they’re nobody; why do we have to pay them off?”

In an article for The New Republic, Dr. Baker commended Dr. Paul for his creativity and agreed that having the Federal Reserve Board destroy the $1.6 trillion in government bonds it now holds as a result of quantitative easing “is actually a very reasonable way to deal with the crisis”.  Baker provided this explanation:

Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion to the Treasury.  In this sense, the bonds held by the Fed are literally money that the government owes to itself.

Unlike the debt held by Social Security, the debt held by the Fed is not tied to any specific obligations.  The bonds held by the Fed are assets of the Fed.  It has no obligations that it must use these assets to meet.  There is no one who loses their retirement income if the Fed doesn’t have its bonds.  In fact, there is no direct loss of income to anyone associated with the Fed’s destruction of its bonds.  This means that if Congress told the Fed to burn the bonds, it would in effect just be destroying a liability that the government had to itself, but it would still reduce the debt subject to the debt ceiling by $1.6 trillion. This would buy the country considerable breathing room before the debt ceiling had to be raised again.  President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership could have close to two years to talk about potential spending cuts or tax increases.  Maybe they could even talk a little about jobs.

Unfortunately, the next passage of Dr. Baker’s essay exposed the reason why this simple, logical solution would never become implemented:

As it stands now, the Fed plans to sell off its bond holdings over the next few years.  This means that the interest paid on these bonds would go to banks, corporations, pension funds, and individual investors who purchase them from the Fed.

And therein lies the rub:  The infamous “too-big-to-fail” banks could buy those bonds with money borrowed from the Fed at a fractional interest rate, and then collect the yield on those bonds – entirely at the expense of American taxpayers!  Not only would the American people lose money by loaning the bond purchase money to the banks almost free of charge – we would lose even more money by paying those banks interest on the money we just loaned to those same banks – nearly free of charge.  (This is nothing new.  It’s been ongoing since the inception of “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP on December 16, 2008.)  President Obama would never allow his patrons on Wall Street to have such an opportunity “stolen” from them by the American taxpayers.  Banking industry lobbyists would start swarming all over Capitol Hill carrying briefcases filled with money if any serious effort to undertake such a plan reached the discussion stage.  At this point, you might suspect that the grifters on the Hill could have a scheme underway:  Make a few noises about following Baker’s suggestion and wait for the lobbyists to start sharing the love.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be left to suffer the consequences of our government’s failure to raise the debt ceiling.


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Why Au-scare-ity Still Has Traction

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Many economists have been watching Britain’s experiment with austerity for quite a while.  Britain has been following a course of using cuts in government programs along with mass layoffs of public sector workers in attempt to stimulate economic growth.  Back in February, economist Dean Baker made this observation:

Three months ago, I noted that the United States might benefit from the pain being suffered by the citizens of the United Kingdom.  The reason was the new coalition government’s commitment to prosperity through austerity.  As predicted, this looks very much like a path to pain and stagnation, not healthy growth.

That’s bad news for the citizens of the United Kingdom.  They will be forced to suffer through years of unnecessarily high unemployment.  They will also have to endure cutbacks in support for important public services like healthcare and education.

But the pain for the people in England could provide a useful example for the United States.

*   *   *

Prior to this episode, there was already a solid economic case that large public deficits were necessary to support the economy in the period following the collapse of an asset bubble. The point is simply that the private sector is not prepared to make up the demand gap, at least in the short term.  Both short-term and long-term interest rates are pretty much as low as they can be.

*   *   *

From this side of the pond, though, the goal is simply to encourage people to pay attention.  The UK might be home to 60 million people, but from the standpoint of US economic policy, it is simply exhibit A:  it is the country that did what our deficit hawks want to do in the US.

The takeaway lesson should be “austerity does not work; don’t go there.”  Unfortunately, in the land of faith-based economics, evidence does not count for much.  The UK may pursue a disastrous austerity path and those of us in the United States may still have to follow the same road anyhow.

After discussing the above-quoted commentary by Dean Baker, economist Mark Thoma added this:

Yes — it’s not about evidence, it’s about finding an excuse to implement an ideology.  The recession got in the way of those efforts until the idea that austerity is stimulative came along. Thus, “austerity is stimulative” is being used very much like “tax cuts increase revenues.”  It’s a means of claiming that ideological goals are good for the economy so that supporters in Congress and elsewhere have a means of rationalizing the policies they want to put in place.  It’s the idea that matters, and contrary evidence is brushed aside.

There seems to be an effort in many quarters to deny that the financial crisis ever happened.  Although it will eventually become absolutely imperative to get deficits under control, most sober economists emphasize that attempting to do so before the economy begins to recover and before the unemployment crisis is even addressed – would destroy any chance of economic recovery.  Barack Obama’s opponents know that the easiest route toward subverting the success of his re-election campaign involves undermining any efforts toward improving the economy to any degree by November of 2012.  Beyond that, the fast-track implementation of a British-style austerity program could guarantee a double-dip recession, which could prove disastrous to Obama’s re-election hopes.  As a result, the pressure is on to initiate some significant austerity measures as quickly as possible.  The propaganda employed to expedite this effort involves scaring the sheeple into believing that the horrifying budget deficit is about to bite them in the ass right now.  There is a rapidly increasing drumbeat to crank-up the scare factor.

Of course, the existence of this situation is the result of Obama’s own blunder.  Although he did manage to defeat Osama bin Laden, President Obama’s February, 2009 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 – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  In his own “Tora Bora moment”, President Obama decided to rely on the advice of the very people who helped cause the financial crisis, by doing more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  In April of 2009, Obama chose to parrot the discredited “money multiplier” myth, fed to him by Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner, in order to justify continuous corporate welfare for the megabanks.  If Obama had followed the right course, by pushing a stronger, more infrastructure-based stimulus program through the Democrat-controlled Senate and House, we would be enjoying a more healthy economy right now.  A significant number of the nearly fifteen million people currently unemployed could have found jobs from which they would now be paying income taxes, which reduce the deficit.  But that didn’t happen.  President Obama has no one else to blame for that error.  His opponents are now attempting to “snowball” that mistake into a disaster that could make him a one-term President.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich saw this coming back in March:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

Professor Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, recently brought the focus of the current economic debate back to where it belongs:

In the nation’s latest fiscal mood swing, the mainstream consensus has swung from “we must extend the Bush tax cuts” (in December 2010) towards “we must immediately cut the budget deficit.”  The prevailing assumption, increasingly heard from both left and right, is that we already have far too much government debt – and any further significant increase will likely ruin us all.

This way of framing the debate is misleading – and very much at odds with US fiscal history.  It masks the deeper and important issues here, which are much more about distribution, in particular how much are relatively wealthy Americans willing to transfer to relatively poor Americans?

*   *   *

The real budget debate is not about a few billion here or there – for example in the context of when the government’s “debt ceiling” will be raised.  And it is not particularly about the last decade’s jump in government debt level – although this has grabbed the headlines, this is something that we can grow out of (unless the political elite decides to keep cutting taxes).

The real issue is how much relatively rich people are willing to pay and on what basis in the form of transfers to relatively poor people – and how rising healthcare costs should affect those transfers.

As the Tea Partiers flock to movie theaters to watch Atlas Shrugged, perhaps it’s time for a porno send-up, based on a steamy encounter between Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko called, Greed Feels Good.


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Congress Could Be Quite Different After 2012 Elections

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They come up for re-election every two years.  Each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives is in a constant “campaign mode” because the term of office is so short.  Lee White of the American Historical Association summed-up the impact of the 2010 elections this way:

On Tuesday, November 2, 2010, U.S. voters dramatically changed the landscape in Washington.  Republicans gained control of the House and, although the Democrats retained control of the Senate their margin in that body has been reduced to 53-47.

*   *   *

Clearly the most dramatic change will be in the House with new Republican committee and subcommittee chairs taking over.

Voter discontent was revealed by the fact that just before the 2010 elections, the Congressional approval rating was at 17 percent.  More recently, according to a Gallup poll, taken during April 7-11 of 2011, Congressional job approval is now back down to 17 percent, after a bump up to 23 percent in February.  Of particular interest were the conclusions drawn by the pollsters at Gallup concerning the implications of the latest polling results:

Congress’ approval rating in Gallup’s April 7-11 survey is just four points above its all-time low.  The probability of a significant improvement in congressional approval in the months ahead is not high. Congress is now engaged in a highly contentious battle over the federal budget, with a controversial vote on the federal debt ceiling forthcoming in the next several months.  The Republican-controlled House often appears to be battling with itself, as conservative newly elected House members hold out for substantial cuts in government spending.  Additionally, Americans’ economic confidence is as low as it has been since last summer, and satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. is at 19%.

At this point, it appears as though we could be looking at an even larger crop of freshmen in the 2013 Congress than we saw in January, 2011.  (According to polling guru, Nate Silver, the fate of the 33 Senate incumbents is still an open question.)

One poster child for voter ire could be Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama.  You might recall that at approximately this time last year, Matt Taibbi wrote another one of his great exposés for Rolling Stone entitled, “Looting Main Street”.  In his exceptional style, Taibbi explained how JPMorgan Chase bribed the local crooked politicians into replacing Jefferson County’s bonds, issued to finance an expensive sewer project, with variable interest rate swaps (also known as synthetic rate swaps).  Then came the financial crisis.  As a result, the rate Jefferson County had to pay on the bonds went up while the rates paid by banks to the county went down.  It didn’t take long for the bond rating companies to downgrade those sewer bonds to “junk” status.

JPMorgan Chase unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss a lawsuit arising from this snafu.  Law 360 reported on April 15 that the Alabama Supreme Court recently affirmed the denial of JPMorgan’s attempt to dismiss the case, which was based on these facts:

Jefferson County accuses JPMorgan of paying bribes to county officials in exchange for an appointment as lead underwriter for what turned out to be a highly risky refinancing of the county’s sewer debt, which caused Jefferson County billions of dollars in losses.  According to the complaint, JPMorgan, JPMorgan Chase and underwriting firm Blount Parrish & Co. handed out bribes, kickbacks and payoffs to swindle the county out of millions in inflated fees.

JPMorgan claimed that only the Governor of Alabama had authority to bring such a suit.  I wonder why former Alabama Governor Bob Riley didn’t bother to join Jefferson County as a party plaintiff, making the issue moot and saving Jefferson County some legal fees, before the case found its way to the state Supreme Court?

Joe Nocera of The New York Times recently put the spotlight on another character from Alabama politics:

Has Spencer Bachus, as the local congressman, decried this debacle?  Of course – what local congressman wouldn’t?  In a letter last year to Mary Schapiro, the chairwoman of the S.E.C., he said that the county’s financing schemes “magnified the inherent risks of the municipal finance market.”

*   *   *

Bachus is not just your garden variety local congressman, though.  As chairman of the Financial Services Committee, he is uniquely positioned to help make sure that similar disasters never happen again – not just in Jefferson County but anywhere.  After all, the new Dodd-Frank financial reform law will, at long last, regulate derivatives.  And the implementation of that law is being overseen by Bachus and his committee.

Among its many provisions related to derivatives – all designed to lessen their systemic risk – is a series of rules that would make it close to impossible for the likes of JPMorgan to pawn risky derivatives off on municipalities.  Dodd-Frank requires sellers of derivatives to take a near-fiduciary interest in the well-being of a municipality.

You would think Bachus would want these regulations in place as quickly as possible, given the pain his constituents are suffering.  Yet, last week, along with a handful of other House Republican bigwigs, he introduced legislation that would do just the opposite:  It would delay derivative regulation until January 2013.

As Joe Nocera suggested, this might be more than simply a delaying tactic, to keep derivatives trading unregulated for another two years.  Bachus could be counting on Republican takeovers of the Senate and the White House after the 2012 election cycle.  At that point, Bachus and his fellow Tools of Wall Street could finally drive a stake through the heart of the nearly-stillborn baby known as “financial reform”.

On the other hand, the people vested with the authority to cast those votes that keep Spencer Bachus in office, could realize that he is betraying them in favor of the Wall Street banksters.  The “public memory” may be short but – fortunately – the term of office for a Congressman is equally brief.


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