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Time For Another Victory Lap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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


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Wading In Quicksand

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July 12, 2010

The recent Gallup Poll, revealing that President Obama’s approval rating has dropped to 38% among independent voters, has resulted in an outpouring of (unsolicited) advice offered to the President by numerous commentators.  As I pointed out in my last posting, Matt Miller’s July 8 Washington Post article set out a really great plan, which he described as “a radically centrist ‘Jobs Now, Deficits Soon’ package”.   Nevertheless, Mr. Miller’s piece was not written as advice to the President, as some of the more recent articles have been.  I recently read one of those “advice to Obama” pieces that the President would do well to ignore.  It was written by a former Bill Clinton pollster named Douglas Schoen for the New York Daily News Schoen’s plan focused on this premise:

The independent swing voters who hold the fate of the Democratic Party in their hands are looking for candidates and parties that champion fiscal discipline, limited government, deficit reduction and a free market, pro-growth agenda.

Not true.  The independent swing voters are disappointed with Obama because the candidate’s promise of “hope and change” turned out to be a “bait and switch” scam to sell the public more cronyism.  At this point, it appears as though the entire Democratic Party will suffer the consequences in the 2010 elections.

The shortcomings of the Obama administration were more accurately summed up by Robert Kuttner for The Huffington Post:

But even a dire economic crisis and a Republican blockade of needed remedies have not fundamentally altered the temperament, trajectory, or tactical instincts of this surprisingly aloof  president.  He has not been willing or able to use his office to move public opinion in a direction that favors more activism.  Nor has Obama, for the most part, seized partisan and ideological opportunities that hapless Republicans and clueless corporate executives keep lobbing him like so many high, hanging curve balls.

*   *   *

But despite our hopes, Barack Obama is unlikely to offer bolder policies or give tougher speeches any time soon, even as threats of a double-dip recession and an electoral blowout in November loom.  This is just not who he is.  If the worst economic crisis in eight decades were going to change his assumptions about how to govern and how to lead, it would have done so by now.

*   *   *

I have also watched Obama’s loyal opposition –people like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Warren, Sheila Bair — be proven right by events, again and again.  So there are alternative paths, as there always are.  But the White House has disdained them.

And I’ve noticed that it is the populists among Democratic elected officials who are best defended against defeat in November.  That tells you something, too.  Why should the project of rallying the common people against elites in Washington, on Wall Street, and in the media, be ceded to the far right?  But that is what this White House is doing.

E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post demonstrated a good understanding of why independent voters have become fed up with Obama and how this has ballooned into a larger issue of anti-Democrat sentiment:

On the one hand, independent voters are turning on them.  Democratic House candidates enjoyed a 51 percent to 43 percent advantage over Republicans in 2008.  This time, the polls show independents tilting Republican by substantial margins.

But Democrats are also suffering from a lack of enthusiasm among their own supporters.  Poll after poll has shown that while Republicans are eager to cast ballots, many Democrats seem inclined to sit out this election.

The apathy of the rank-and-file Democrats and the alienation of the independents is best explained by the Administration’s faux-reform agenda.  The so-called healthcare “reform” bill turned out to be a giveaway to big pharma and the health insurance industry.  Worse yet, the financial “reform” bill not only turned out to be a hoax – it did nothing to address systemic risk.  In other words, if one of those five “untouchable” Wall Street banks fails, it will take the entire financial system down with it — in the absence of another huge, trillion-dollar bailout from the taxpayers.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute documented the extent to which Obama’s Treasury Department undermined the financial reform bill at every step:

Examples?  Off the top of my head, ones with a paper trail:  They fought the Collins amendment for quality of bank capital, fought leverage requirements like a 15-to-1 cap, fought prefunding the resolution mechanism, fought Section 716removed foreign exchange swaps and introduced end user exemption from derivative language between the Obama white paper and the House Bill, believed they could have gotten the SAFE Banking Amendment to break up the banks but didn’t try, pushed against the full Audit the Fed and encouraged the Scott Brown deal. spinning out swap desks,

You can agree or disagree with any number of those items, think they are brilliant or dumb, reasonable or a pipe dream.  But what is worth noting is that they always end up leaving their fingerprints on the side of less structural reform and in favor of the status quo on Wall Street.

The Obama administration is apparently operating from the mistaken perspective that the voters are too stupid to see through their antics.  Sending Joe Biden to appear on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show to dissuade the public from considering the motives of politicians will not solve the administration’s problem of sinking approval ratings.




The C Word

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June 8, 2009

I always find it amusing when politicians adopt the catch phrases and other expressions, obviously created by their lobbyist/puppeteers.  One of my favorites is “foreign oil”, as in:  “We need to end our dependence on foreign oil”.  Do they expect people to believe that Jesus made our oil different from that “Muslim oil”, which causes air pollution?  The expression:  “foreign oil” is obviously being used to vilify Arab countries for last year’s inflated gasoline prices, caused by oil speculators and American oil companies.  (Let’s not forget the price gouging by gasoline retailers.)  Most Americans realize that we have a serious problem with our dependence on petroleum products and, more generally fossil fuels, including coal, as sources of energy.  According to a March, 2009 Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans are “worried a great deal or fair amount” by global warming.  Although this is down from last year’s 66 percent, 76 percent of Americans are “worried a great deal or fair amount” by air pollution itself, independent of the global warming consequences (according to the same poll).

Attention is increasingly focused on the concept of “clean coal” as an energy source.  In his February 24 address to the Joint Session of Congress, President Obama made it clear that he supported Congressional financing of the development of “clean coal” as a viable energy source.  The timing seemed intended to coincide with the aggressive advertising campaign against “clean coal”.  In case you’re wondering just what “clean coal” is  .  .  .  Ben Elgin wrote an article for Business Week last year, entitled:  “The Dirty Truth About Clean Coal”.  Here’s some of what he had to say:

The catch is that for now — and for years to come — “clean coal” will remain more a catchphrase than a reality.  Despite the eagerness of the coal and power industries to sanitize their image and the desire of U.S. politicians to push a healthy-sounding alternative to expensive foreign oil and natural gas, clean coal is still a misnomer.

*    *    *

Corporations and the federal government have tried for years to accomplish “carbon capture and sequestration.”  So far they haven’t had much luck.  The method is widely viewed as being decades away from commercial viability.  Even then, the cost could be prohibitive:  by a conservative estimate, several trillion dollars to switch to clean coal in the U.S. alone.

Then there are the safety questions.  One large, coal-fired plant generates the equivalent of 3 billion barrels of CO2 over a 60-year lifetime.  That would require a space the size of a major oil field to contain.  The pressure could cause leaks or earthquakes, says Curt M. White, who ran the U.S. Energy Dept.’s carbon sequestration group until 2005 and served as an adviser until earlier this year.  “Red flags should be going up everywhere when you talk about this amount of liquid being put underground.”

*    *    *

Companies seeking to build dozens of coal-fueled power plants across the country use the term “clean coal” liberally in trying to persuade regulators and voters.

Needless to say, President Obama’s advocacy on behalf of the “clean coal” lobby has outraged more than a few people.  Will Harlan wrote an article for the March 20 edition of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, entitled:  “The Dirty Truth Behind Obama’s ‘Clean Coal’ Stimulus”.  In addition to addressing the problems yet to be overcome with carbon capture, as well as the problems associated with mountaintop removal mining, sludge spills, dam breaches, poisoned wells, skyrocketing cancer rates, childhood asthma, premature deaths, slurry ponds, coal ash waste and mercury emissions, Harlan pointed out that:

Obama has also committed to reviving a boondoggle coal facility that even the Bush Administration decided to kill:  the FutureGen Carbon Capture and Storage Plant, which just happens to be located in Obama’s home state of Illinois.  Even though the facility costs have soared well beyond budget, and it is nowhere close to developing cost-effective technologies to safely capture and store carbon, Obama continues to support it.

Why are we letting Obama get away with greenwashing coal by perpetuating the “clean coal” myth?  The Democrats received close to $1 million in “contributions” in 2008 from the coal mining industry.  And southern Illinois is part of the country’s coal belt.

Eugene Robinson deserves a hat tip for his June 5 Washington Post column, criticizing Obama’s stance on this issue.  The strongest point made by Robinson was the cost/benefit analysis:

The Obama administration is spending $2.4 billion from the stimulus package on carbon capture and storage projects — a mere down payment.  Imagine what that money could do if it were spent on solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.  Imagine if we actually tried to solve the problem rather than bury it.

It should come as no surprise that the Greenpeace website would feature an essay, critical of “clean coal” with the following conclusion:

“Clean coal” is an attempt by the coal industry to try and make itself relevant in the age of renewables.  Existing CCTs do nothing to mitigate the environmental effects of coal mining or the devastating effects of global warming.  Coal is the dirtiest fuel there is and belongs in the past.  Much higher emission cuts can be made using currently available natural gas, wind and modern biomass that are already in widespread use.  Clean, inexpensive.  This is where investment should be directed, rather than squandering valuable resources on a dirty dinosaur.

Nevertheless, what does come as a surprise is that the very same article quoted above appears on Barack Obama’s Campaign for America website.  In case you’re wondering how to reconcile that point of view with Obama’s enthusiasm for “clean coal”, you have to read the disclaimer appearing at the end of the article on the Campaign for America site:

Content on blogs in My.BarackObama represents the opinions of community members and in no way should be interpreted as endorsed or approved by the campaign.

In other words:  “Don’t be dumb enough to believe that President Obama is really going to support anything you read here”.

In his June 4 opinion piece for The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne observed how the media are:

… largely ignoring critiques of Obama that come from elected officials on the left.

This was brought home at this week’s annual conference of the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive group that supports Obama but worries about how close his economic advisers are to Wall Street, how long our troops will have to stay in Afghanistan and how much he will be willing to compromise to secure health-care reform.

To the objective observer, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Barack Obama is as much of a hypocrite as any other politician who found his way to the White House.

A Love–Hate Situation For The Stimulus Bill

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February 2, 2009

As the Senate focuses its attention on the economic stimulus bill, Republicans are putting up a good fight, after the measure sailed through the House of Representatives, despite unanimous Republican opposition.  Time magazine reports that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell believes that the bill will fail in the Senate because it does not provide enough tax cuts.  The Republican insistence on tax cuts has already been addressed by President Obama, who included more tax cuts into the measure.  In an editorial for Bloomberg News, Michael R. Sesit complained:

Obama’s proposed cuts are politically motivated — a bone thrown to Republicans, who embrace lower taxes.  The president’s desire to promote bipartisanship is a laudable goal.  Yet pursuing it at the expense of sound economic policy is a high price to pay.  Obama has enormous public support and doesn’t need Republican cooperation to pass his stimulus program.

Tax cuts are also politically hard to reverse, which will eventually be necessary once the economy is back on its feet and inflation picks up.

The Time article quoted Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank’s response to the cry for even more tax cuts:

“I never saw a tax cut fix a bridge. I never saw a tax cut give us more public transportation.  The fact is, we need a mix,” Frank said.

In his January 29 op-ed column for the New York Times, David Brooks reflected on what Larry Summers (the newly-appointed head of the National Economic Council) had to say throughout 2008 about the nature of a large-scale stimulus package, such as the one under consideration.  Brooks noted “three clear guidelines” established by Summers for developing a plan such as this:

First, the stimulus should be timely.  The money should go out “almost immediately.”  Second, it should be targeted.  It should help low- and middle-income people.  Third, it should be temporary.  Stimulus measures should not raise the deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”

In criticizing this bill, Brooks argued that these parameters have been abandoned.  Among his suggested “fixes” would be the removal of the permanent programs built into the proposal.

Meanwhile, E. J. Dionne has written about how progressive Democrats are split into two camps, expressing different priorities for the measure:

One camp favors using the stimulus to focus on the needs of Americans of modest means.  The $819 billion stimulus bill that passed the House Wednesday night on a party-line vote, as well as the proposal being developed in the Senate, includes substantial new spending for the unemployed, for food stamps and for advances in health-care coverage.  The tax cuts in both versions tilt toward Americans with lower incomes.  Education programs also fare well.

But another group of progressives sees the bills as shorting investments for infrastructure:  roads, bridges and particularly mass transit.  This camp was buoyed by a report released Wednesday by the American Society of Civil Engineers concluding that it would take $2.2 trillion to bring the nation’s infrastructure into good repair.

Many sources, including the San Francisco Chronicle, have criticized this bill as being laden with “pork” projects, unlikely to spur economic growth or to create jobs.  Beyond that, Jeanne Cummings provided an interesting report on the Politico website, revealing how the business sector sees this “oversized legislation” as a “golden opportunity”.  The Democrats do not seem averse to this interest:

Senate Democrats, hoping to draw more bipartisan support, have already signaled they’re going to beef up the business provisions.  Versions of some of the most coveted tax breaks are already in the proposal by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

But business leaders and their trade representatives would like to see even more love in the stimulus.  And they’ve commissioned special studies, blanketed the committee with letters and recruited industry bigwigs to make their case.

In the face of this expanding government largesse, an editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post called upon President Obama to remind those in Congress “including leaders of his own party, who are cluttering his fiscal stimulus plan with extraneous and counterproductive provisions” of the admonition he gave to the bad actors on Wall Street.  In his disgust with the misappropriation of over $18 billion in TARP money for bonuses, the President said:  “show some restraint and show some discipline and show some sense of responsibility.”  In a passage reminiscent of David Brooks’ emphasis on the “three clear guidelines” established by Larry Summers, the Washington Post editorial noted that:

Instead of giving the economy a “targeted, timely and temporary” injection, the plan has been larded with spending on existing social programs or hastily designed new ones, much of it permanent or probably permanent — and not enough of it likely to create new jobs.

Former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin fears that “money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted.”  Former Reagan administration economist Martin Feldstein writes that “it delivers too little extra employment and income for such a large fiscal deficit.”  Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs labels the plan “an astounding mishmash of tax cuts, public investments, transfer payments and special treats for insiders.”

Let’s face it:  the Republicans aren’t the only ones who are upset about the excesses in this stimulus plan.  In fact, most Republican governors favor this bill.  Last week the National Governors Association called on Congress to pass the plan.  Beth Fouhy reported for the Associated Press that Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Vermont Governor Jim Douglas are pushing Republican Senators to pass the bill.  Although such a measure may be distasteful to Republican ideals, these hard times demand that Republican governors follow the procedure described by Rush Limbaugh as “bending over and grabbing your ankles”:

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is widely viewed as a potential presidential contender in 2012, said governors have little choice but to accept the relief being offered.  “States have to balance their budgets,” he said.  “So if we’re going to go down this path, we are entitled to ask for our share of the money.”

As the stimulus bill makes its way through the Senate, it will be interesting to see whether the final version involves dispersal of more than or less than $826 billion.  Don’t be surprised if it hits the One Trillion mark.