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© 2008 – 2017 John T. Burke, Jr.

Inviting More Trouble

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I frequently revert to my unending criticism of President Obama for “punting” on the 2009 economic stimulus program.  The most recent example was my June 13 posting, wherein I noted how Stephanie Kelton provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time during the first month of Obama’s Presidency, in a piece she published on William Black’s New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

As it turned out – that is exactly what happened.  Obama’s lack of leadership and his apologetic, half-assed use of government power to fight the recession has brought us to where we are today.  It may also bring Barack Obama and his family to a new address in January of 2013.

At this point, the “austerian” economists are claiming that the attenuated stimulus program’s failure to bring us more robust economic growth is “proof” that Keynesian economics “doesn’t work”.  The fact that many of these economists speak the way they do as a result of conflicts of interest – arising from the fact that they are on the payrolls of private firms with vested interests in maintaining the status quo – is lost on the vast majority of Americans.  Unfortunately, President Obama is not concerned with rebutting the arguments of these “hired guns”.  A recent poll by Bloomberg News revealed that the American public has successfully been fooled into believing that austerity measures could somehow revive our economy:

As the public grasps for solutions, the Republican Party is breaking through in the message war on the budget and economy.  A majority of Americans say job growth would best be revived with prescriptions favored by the party:  cuts in government spending and taxes, the Bloomberg Poll shows.  Even 40 percent of Democrats share that view.

*   *   *

Though Americans rate unemployment and the economy as a greater concern than the deficit and government spending, the issues are now closely connected.  Sixty-five percent of respondents say they believe the size of the federal deficit is “a major reason” the jobless rate hasn’t dropped significantly.

*   *   *

Republican criticism of the federal budget growth has gained traction with the public.  Fifty-five percent of poll respondents say cuts in spending and taxes would be more likely to bring down unemployment than would maintaining or increasing government spending, as Obama did in his 2009 stimulus package.

The voters are finally buying the corporatist propaganda that unemployment will recede if the government would just leave businesses alone. Forget about any government “hiring programs” – we actually need to fire more government employees!  With those annoying regulators off their backs, corporations would be free to hire again and bring us all to Ayn Rand heaven.  You are supposed to believe that anyone who disagrees with this or contends that government can play a role in job creation is a socialist.

Nevertheless, prominent individuals from the world of business and finance are making an effort to debunk these myths.  Bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO recently addressed the subject:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.  President Obama’s long-term budget makes just such a claim and Republican alternatives go many steps further.  Former Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota might be the Republicans’ extreme example, but his claim of 5% real growth based on tax cuts and entitlement reductions comes out of left field or perhaps the field of dreams.  The United States has not had a sustained period of 5% real growth for nearly 60 years.

Both parties, in fact, are moving to anti-Keynesian policy orientations, which deny additional stimulus and make rather awkward and unsubstantiated claims that if you balance the budget, “they will come.”  It is envisioned that corporations or investors will somehow overnight be attracted to the revived competitiveness of the U.S. labor market:  Politicians feel that fiscal conservatism equates to job growth.

*   *   *

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

Hedge fund manager, Barry Ritholtz discussed his own ideas for “Jump Starting the U.S. Economy” on his website, The Big Picture.  He concluded the piece by lamenting the fact that the federal debt/deficit debate is sucking all the air out of the room at the very time when people should be discussing job creation:

The focus on Deficits today is absurd, forcing us towards another 1938-type recession.  The time to reduce the government’s economic deficit and footprint is during a robust expansion, not during (or just after) major contractions.

During the de-leveraging following a credit crisis is the worst possible time to be deficit obsessed.

Don’t count on President Obama to say anything remotely similar to what you just read.  You would be expecting too much.


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Unwanted Transparency

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Immediately after assuming office, President Obama promised to provide a greater degree of transparency from his administration:

Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

Did you really believe that?  Do you remember Jane Mayer – author of that great book, The Dark Side, which exposed the controversial “enhanced interrogation techniques”?  Well, she just wrote an article for The New Yorker, discussing the Obama administration’s use of the Espionage Act of 1917 to press criminal charges in five alleged instances of national security leaks.  At the outset of the article, Ms. Mayer made this observation:

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a conservative political scientist at the Hudson Institute, who, in his book “Necessary Secrets” (2010), argues for more stringent protection of classified information, says, “Ironically, Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history – even more so than Nixon.”

Meanwhile, another sort of unwanted transparency is catching up with the Obama administration:  transparent motives.  Many commentators are finally facing-up to the reality that Obama never gave a damn about the unemployment crisis.  I have repeatedly emphasized that 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 – 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.

A recent interview with economist Tim Duy focused on the inadequacy of the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009:

What went wrong with stimulus?  Why does unemployment remain so high?

I don’t think anything “went wrong” with the stimulus, other than it simply wasn’t enough to fill the depth of the economic hole caused by the recession.  There was simply a lack of political willpower to fully acknowledge the depth of the problem and bring to bear the appropriate resources.  The result is an economy that is not bouncing back quickly enough to close the output gap and create sufficient job growth to drive the unemployment rate down lower at a faster pace.

Is the economy not weak enough to justify more stimulus?  Or do policy makers think that deficit spending is not able to generate more jobs?

Yes, the economy is weak enough to justify additional stimulus, and the persistently low rates of government debt should prove that current fears of deficit spending are unjustified.  Some policymakers appear to believe that a commitment to fiscal austerity will in fact generate more job growth, but this is nonsensical –  austerity would only aggravate the existing challenges (as it has in Greece).  There is currently no constraint that prevents more fiscal stimulus from being effective in promoting additional economic growth.  Longer run, yes, the US federal budget does need to be addressed, but letting growth stagnate now will only intensify that challenge in the future. Policymakers, however, appear enamoured with the idea that these challenges need to be addressed now, and this attitude poses another risk to the recovery.

I want to focus on what Professor Duy described as a “lack of willpower”.  That lack of willpower was rooted in a lack of authenticity.  President Obama was never concerned about what most of us would consider “economic recovery” – reducing unemployment to just below five percent.  Obama’s goal was to do just enough to avoid another Great Depression.  Once that goal was accomplished, it was time to move on to other things.  My cynicism on this subject was validated in a recent essay by Mark Provost for Truthout, entitled, “Why the Rich Love High Unemployment”.  In fact, Provost’s article was met with such widespread enthusiasm that it was republished in its entirety on the following websites:  Naked Capitalism, Angry Bear and The Economic Populist.  Here are some key points from the piece:

Obama’s advisers often congratulate themselves for avoiding another Great Depression – an assertion not amenable to serious analysis or debate.  A better way to evaluate their claims is to compare the US economy to other rich countries over the last few years.

On the basis of sustaining economic growth, the United States is doing better than nearly all advanced economies.

*   *   *

But when it comes to jobs, US policymakers fall short of their rosy self-evaluations.

*   *   *

The gap between economic growth and job creation reflects three separate but mutually reinforcing factors:  US corporate governance, Obama’s economic policies and the deregulation of US labor markets.

*   *   *

Obama’s lopsided recovery also reflects lopsided government intervention. Apart from all the talk about jobs, the Obama administration never supported a concrete employment plan.  The stimulus provided relief, but it was too small and did not focus on job creation.

The administration’s problem is not a question of economics, but a matter of values and priorities.

Mark Provost’s essay featured this infamous quote from a Washington Post article written by Steven Rattner (Obama’s “car czar” during 2009 – whose task force was overseen by “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Larry Summers):

Perversely, the nagging high jobless rate reflects two of the most promising attributes of the American economy:  its flexibility and its productivity.  Eliminating jobs – with all the wrenching human costs – raises productivity and, thereby, competitiveness (the president’s new favorite word).  In the long run, increasing productivity is the only route to superior competitiveness.

*   *   *

That kind of efficiency is perhaps our most precious economic asset.  However tempting it may be, we need to resist tinkering with the labor market.  Policy proposals aimed too directly at raising employment may well collaterally end up dragging on productivity. And weak productivity would exacerbate the downward pressure on wages that caused the last decade to be the first in our history in which wages (after adjustment for inflation) declined.

In other words, productivity is more important than those pesky “wrenching human costs”.  Too bad there just isn’t some kind of spray or ointment for those things!  This attitude exemplified what Chris Hedges discussed in his book, Death of the Liberal Class.  In a recent article for Truthdig, Chris Hedges emphasized how the liberal class “abandoned the human values that should have remained at the core of its activism”:

The liberal class, despite becoming an object of widespread public scorn, prefers the choreographed charade.  It will decry the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or call for universal health care, but continue to defend and support a Democratic Party that has no intention of disrupting the corporate machine.  As long as the charade is played, the liberal class can hold itself up as the conscience of the nation without having to act.  It can maintain its privileged economic status.  It can continue to live in an imaginary world where democratic reform and responsible government exist.  It can pretend it has a voice and influence in the corridors of power.  But the uselessness and irrelevancy of the liberal class are not lost on the tens of millions of Americans who suffer the indignities of the corporate state.  And this is why liberals are rightly despised by the working class and the poor.

To repeat an important statement from Mark Provost’s essay:

The administration’s problem is not a question of economics, but a matter of values and priorities.

The unemployment crisis is destined to continue for several years – thanks to the administration’s abandonment of those human values discussed by Chris Hedges.


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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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