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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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The Wrong Playbook

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President Obama is still getting it wrong.  Nevertheless, we keep hearing that he is such a clever politician.  Count me among those who believe that the Republicans are setting Obama up for failure and a loss to whatever goofball happens to win the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012 – solely because of a deteriorating economy.  Obama had the chance to really save the economy and “right the ship”.  When he had the opportunity to confront the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama violated Rahm Emanuel’s infamous doctrine, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.  The new President immediately made a point of squandering the opportunity to overcome that crisis.  I voiced my frustration about this on October 7, 2010:

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do 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.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

In September of 2009, I discussed a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  In analyzing Australia’s approach to the financial crisis, economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

On October 6, 2010, Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Workers in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile, America’s jobless rate has been hovering around 9 percent and the Federal Reserve found it necessary to print-up another $600 billion for a controversial second round of quantitative easing.  If that $600 billion had been used for the 2009 economic stimulus (and if the stimulus program had been more infrastructure-oriented) we would probably have enjoyed a result closer to that experienced by Australia.  Instead, President Obama chose to follow Japan’s strategy of perpetual bank bailouts (by way of the Fed’s “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP and multiple rounds of quantitative easing), sending America’s economy into our own “lost decade”.

The only member of the Clinton administration who deserves Obama’s ear is being ignored.  Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has been repeatedly emphasizing that President Obama is making a huge mistake by attempting to follow the Clinton playbook:

Many of President Obama’s current aides worked for Clinton and vividly recall Clinton’s own midterm shellacking in 1994 and his re-election two years later – and they think the president should follow Clinton’s script. Obama should distance himself from congressional Democrats, embrace deficit reduction and seek guidance from big business.  They assume that because triangulation worked for Clinton, it will work for Obama.

They’re wrong.  Clinton’s shift to the right didn’t win him re-election in 1996. He was re-elected because of the strength of the economic recovery.

By the spring of 1995, the American economy already had bounced back, averaging 200,000 new jobs per month.  By early 1996, it was roaring – creating 434,000 new jobs in February alone.

Obama’s 2011 reality has us losing nearly 400,000 jobs per month.  Nevertheless, there is this misguided belief that the “wealth effect” caused by inflated stock prices and the current asset bubble will somehow make the Clinton strategy relevant.  It won’t.  Instead, President Obama will adopt a strategy of “austerity lite”, which will send America into a second recession dip and alienate voters just in time for the 2012 elections.  Professor Reich recently warned of this:

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.

If inviting a double-dip recession weren’t dumb enough – how about a second financial crisis?  Just add more systemic risk and presto! The banks won’t have any problems because the Fed and the Treasury will provide another round of bailouts.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns recently wrote an essay focused on Treasury Secretary Geithner’s belief that we need big banks to be even bigger.

Even if the Republicans nominate a Presidential candidate who espouses a strategy of simply relying on Jesus to extinguish fires at offshore oil rigs and nuclear reactors – Obama will still lose.  May God help us!


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Listening To Smart People

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As the mid-term election cycle reaches its climax, we find ourselves exposed to an increasing amount of stupid pronouncements by desperate politicians, overworked commentators and plain-old idiots, who managed to attract the interest of television news personnel.  I was particularly amused by the recent outburst from Juan Williams about the fact that he gets nervous when he sees people in “Muslim garb” boarding a plane in which he is a passenger.  NPR saw fit to fire him for making a remark described as “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices”.  Despite the widespread hand-wringing over the “bigoted” nature of the statement, I was more focused on its stupidity.  Does Juan Williams seriously believe that terrorists would board a plane dressed in Muslim garb?  I would assume that all terrorists learn in Jihad 101 that the traditional garb for airborne martyrdom is the Adidas warm-up suit.  Wearing “Muslim garb” for such an occasion would serve only as an offer to be waterboarded.

Another example of election year asininity is the thought that someone could get elected to the Senate by claiming that the incumbent opponent of said candidate “actually voted to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders”.  It was beginning to appear as though stupid has become the “new normal”.

Finally, some fresh air came along when a few news outlets reminded us that there are still some smart people among us.  The Los Angeles Times was kind enough to publish an interview with Elizabeth Warren, conducted by Jim Puzzanghera.  President Obama decided to appoint Professor Warren to launch the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau out of fear that a protracted confirmation battle would ensue if he appointed her as director of that agency.  With non-stop news coverage currently focused on the recent disclosures of fraudulent conduct extending from the mortgage origination process right through the foreclosure process, it would seem that the election-eve interview would provide an opportunity to assail the targets of the new agency.  When asked whether she would support the scattergun approach of seeking a nationwide foreclosure moratorium “while bank paperwork problems are being worked out”, Professor Warren gave us a glimpse of some traits we haven’t seen in a while:  restraint and common sense.  Here is her response to that tough question:

This agency will not veer from its support of American families, whether it’s in the foreclosure crisis or elsewhere.  But no one would want this agency … to act before it had collected all of the necessary data and thought through the options.  The (state) attorneys general are moving fast, and at this moment, I think that’s the right response … with emphasis on “at this moment.”

Professor Warren wasn’t the only smart person to draw some curiosity from the ADD-addled news media this week.  My favorite stock market guru, Jeremy Grantham, released his latest Quarterly Letter on Tuesday.  Its Halloween-based theme made it impossible to overlook.  As usual, Mr. Grantham gave us his unique, brilliant perspective in exposing how the Federal Reserve’s reckless (if not actually criminal) monetary policy helped cause the financial crisis and how Chairman Bernanke’s anticipated move toward more quantitative easing could make a bad situation worse.  Here are a few gems from Grantham’s must-read essay:

And these are most decidedly not normal times.  The unusual number of economic and financial problems has put extreme pressure on the Fed and the Administration to help the economy recover.  The atypical disharmony in Congress, however, has made the Federal government dysfunctional, and almost nothing significant – good or bad – can be done. Standard fiscal stimulus at a level large enough to count now seems impossible, even in the face of an economy that is showing signs of sinking back as the original stimulus wears off. This, of course, puts an even bigger burden on the Fed and induces, it seems, a state of panic.  Thus, the Fed falls back on its last resort – quantitative easing.  This has been used so rarely that its outcome is generally recognized as uncertain.

*   *   *

And of all of the many mistakes of the current Administration, the worst, in my opinion, are directly related to this fiasco:  the inexplicable choice of Geithner, who was actually placed at the scene of the crime in New York and whose fingerprints were on the murder weapon, and the reappointment of  … gulp … Bernanke himself, about whose reappointment much juicy Republican criticism was made, all of it completely justified in my view.  There may, however, be a small ray of hope.  The recent Fed appointee, Vice Chair Janet Yellen, said not long ago, “Of course asset bubbles must be taken seriously!”  She also said, “It is conceivable that accommodative monetary policy could provide tinder for a buildup of leverage and excessive risk taking.”  Yes, sir!  Or rather, madam!  A promising start.  These sentiments, of course, are completely contrary to the oft-repeated policies of Greenspan and his chief acolyte, Bernanke.  Perhaps she will slap some good sense into her boss on this issue.

*   *   *

Since it is customary in polite society to apologize for causing distress, on behalf of the Fed, let me apologize for the extraordinary destructiveness of its policies for the last 15 years.  Bernanke’s version of an apology, delivered in January this year to the American Economic Association, was to claim that the Fed’s monetary policy during the 2000-08 period was appropriate, and that there were no major failings, such as missing the housing bubble completely, that were worth mentioning.  This stubbornness in the face of clear data is right up there with efficient market believers.  And very impolite indeed.

Now I have to go back to waiting another three months for Jeremy Grantham’s next Quarterly Letter.  As always, the current one will be tough to beat.  In the mean time, it’s nice to know that there are some smart people around, capable of providing solutions to our most pressing problems.  If only those vested with the authority to implement those ideas were paying attention   .   .   .