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Bait And Switch

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October 19, 2009

On Friday, October 16, Aaron Task interviewed Elizabeth Warren for his online TV show, Tech Ticker.  In case you don’t remember, Ms. Warren is the Harvard law professor, appointed to chair the Congressional Oversight Panel which has attempted to trace the money thrown into the infamous slush fund known as TARP — the Troubled Assets Relief Program.  Mr. Task questioned Professor Warren as to whether, after all this time, we can expect a full accounting as to where the TARP money went.  Professor Warren responded:  “No.  I think there is no chance that we will get a full accounting of it.”  She explained the reason for this is because former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson never asked for an explanation “on the front end” (when the TARP bailout program began) concerning what the recipients planned to do with this money, nor was any documentation of expenditures requested.  As an aside, the folks at The New York Times were kind enough to put together this TARP scorecard, for keeping track of which institutions pay back the money they received.  Of course, these amounts do not include all the loans, “backstopping” and other largesse provided to Wall Street by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and the Treasury.  For that information, we can look to this Bailout Tally Report, prepared by Nomi Prins for her book:  It Takes a Pillage: Behind the Bailouts, Bonuses,and Backroom Deals from Washington to Wall Street.

During the interview with Aaron Task, Elizabeth Warren expressed particular concern over the fact that former Treasury Secretary Paulson failed to put any restrictions on the use of the TARP bailout funds prior to their dispersal, despite the explanation to the taxpayers that this money would be used to remove the “toxic assets” from the banks’ balance sheets.  Worse yet, as she explained:  “The toxic assets are still there, by and large” because the TARP money was used by the Wall Street banks to “make bets”.  The bait-and-switch tactic used by Secretary Paulson was exposed by Professor Warren when she criticized how the banks used that money:

My biggest complaint would be:  That was not how Secretary Paulsen described what was going to happen with American taxpayer dollars.   . . . He said we are going to put money into the banks to increase lending —  specifically to increase small business lending because that is the engine of our economy . . .  I have a real problem when we describe to taxpayers their money will be taken and used one way and in fact it’s used another way.

Professor Warren also noted that nothing had been done to contain “systemic risk” after the financial crisis because those institutions requiring bailouts as they were considered “too big to fail” have grown even larger.  This subject was addressed by Rolfe Winkler of Reuters, who questioned whether these institutions, such as Goldman Sachs, are really indispensable:

Many of us didn’t like it — we thought banks like Goldman should have been recapitalized the right way, by wiping out shareholders and forcing subordinated creditors to eat their share of losses.  But that ship has sailed.  We socialized the risk while privatizing the profit because we were told we had no other choice:  The government had to guarantee the biggest banks’ liabilities because they were too unstable to survive bankruptcy or FDIC receivership.

If that’s true, why haven’t we seen any substantial reforms to reduce systemic risk?  Congress is kicking around new resolution authority to help resolve failed systemically-important banks.  But the goal should be reducing systemic risk to begin with.  Yet serious reform of the derivatives market — something that would reduce its size significantly — is nowhere on the radar.

Indeed, Goldman’s trading results suggest that market is coming back with a vengeance.  It’s playing in very risky markets with a capital structure that remains vulnerable yet is guaranteed by taxpayers.

*   *   *

Wall Street and its protectors at the Fed and Treasury tell us the bailout was necessary to protect the financial system, to protect Main Street.  That may be.  But Main Street still owns much of the risk while Wall Street gets all of the profit.

Elizabeth Warren’s reaction to the issue of what has been done with those profits — the huge, record-breaking bonuses paid to the people at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, was to describe the situation as so inappropriate as to leave her “speechless”.  Fortunately this sentiment is shared by a number of people who are already taking action in the absence of any responsible government activity.  The Gawker website has announced its initiation of what it calls the “Goldman Project” as a way of pushing back against this atrocity:

But what makes it eye-stabbingly, brain-searingly blood-boiling is the fact that Goldman’s employees are personally reaping the benefits of these subsidies to the tune of an average of $700,000 per staffer.  Being unjustifiably wealthy in boom times is not enough — when market forces of their own creation brought their company low, they turned to the taxpayers both to rescue the firm and prop up their obscenely acquisitive lifestyles.

*   *   *

.  .  .  we’re launching the Goldman Project, an ongoing attempt to track and publicize the multi-million second homes, $50,000 cars, $500 bottles of wine, and ostentatious living that we are subsidizing.  And we need your help: Are you Facebook friends with a Goldmanite who just posted photos of his lavish bachelor party?  Post them to our fancy new tag page, #GoldmanProject, or e-mail them to us.  Are you a realtor who just sold a $4 million duplex a Goldman banker?  Is your ex-boyfriend Goldman banker planning a year-end trip to Cabo to blow his bonus wad?  Shoot us an e-mail.  Likewise, if you catch any references to Goldman employees living large in the media, post them to #GoldmanProject to keep a running clipfile.

The folks at Gawker aren’t the only ones taking action.  When the American Bankers Association holds its annual meeting in Chicago on October 25-26, it will be confronted with a (hopefully) large protest led by a coalition of labor, community and consumer groups, called the “Showdown in Chicago”.  Visit their website and do whatever you can to help make this event a success.  The arrogant influence peddlers in Washington need to get the message:  Clean things up or get thrown out.



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Michelle In The Spotlight

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November 20, 2008

I receive many strange comments on this website that I simply delete.  Although I am a strong proponent of First Amendment rights, I exercise my option of deleting defamatory remarks, spam-based “comments” and miscellaneous lunacy.  That final category includes a comment I received a while ago from an alleged female, focused on Michelle Obama.  The rant included this statement:  “Someone should look into Michelle  …”   I felt inclined to reply with the following:

An obstetrician actually did look into her and found two African-American babies, who were sired by Barack Obama.  Are you scared yet?

Throughout the Presidential campaign, the crazy stuff about Michelle kept turning up all over the media.  Monday, November 17, was a landmark day for that ignominious chapter in “news” coverage.  You may remember Fox News anchor E.D. Hill, who, on June 6, called attention to Michelle’s “terrorist fist jab” with Barack.  Fox News subsequently removed Hill from its America’s Pulse program.  On November 17, TVNewser reported that the Fox News Senior Vice-President of programming, Bill Shine, informed TVNewser of his decision not to renew Hill’s current contract with Fox, which expires within the next few months.  A small step for Fox, but a giant leap for  …  uh …  Fox.

From a more rational perspective, another item about Michelle appeared on today’s Daily Beast website.  The article, “Michelle’s Closet Agenda”, was written by Geraldine Brooks.  Ms. Brooks summarized the theme of her posting with this statement:

The point of this long-winded anecdote is not to add more fuel to the bonfire of the vanities surrounding the fact that, my God, we’re finally gonna’ have another first lady like Jackie who knows how to dress.  The point is twofold:  Michelle seems to be able to do everything she sets her mind to, and to do it at a high level of excellence.  And, more importantly: she knows this, and isn’t about to be “handled” into any role in which she is not supremely confident and comfortable.

This point emphasizes an aspect about Michelle that many people find threatening.  They saw it all before with Hillary Clinton:  A woman who attended law school with her husband at Yale, who went on to have an active and successful legal career.  Although Barack is two years older than Michelle, she graduated from Harvard Law School three years before our President-elect graduated from that same institution.  While working as Vice-President for Community and External Affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals, Michelle was earning approximately $273,000 per year, in comparison with Barack’s $157,000 salary as a United States Senator representing the State of Illinois.

Michelle’s stint as First Lady follows that of Laura Bush, who did not have much to say during her husband’s eight-year tenure.  Nevertheless, book publishers are stomping on each other’s toes in the quest to obtain the publishing rights to Laura’s memoirs.  As for Michelle, many are expecting a First Lady who might have a little more to say, than did Laura Bush.  There is a great deal of doubt as to whether Michelle will become as involved in government as was Hillary Clinton, during her days promoting expanded health care.  Despite that, many people are anxious to get a little more insight from Michelle than we heard from Laura Bush.  One of the first commentators to express this craving was Jason Zengerle.  After Michelle’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Zengerle had this to say in the August 25 edition of The New Republic:

Michelle Obama introduced herself as a sister, a wife, a mother, and a daughter–which are all incredibly important identities.  But those identities don’t reveal her full person–the Princeton and Harvard Law grad, the corporate attorney, the hospital executive–which were parts of her life that she barely mentioned.  Instead, she gave us predictable pap like “the Barack Obama I know today is the same man I fell in love with 19 years ago.”

Many pundits are hungry for more incisive, quotable wisdom from our next First Lady.  They will surely get it.  They will know better than to scrutinize Michelle’s statements for gaffes.  Joe Biden has proven himself as the new administration’s most abundant source of those.  Why look elsewhere?

Kaine Is Able

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July 31, 2008

Speculation is rampant these days, concerning the identities of the Vice-Presidential selections to be made by Barack Obama and John McCain.  The late timing of the Democratic and Republican Conventions, both of which will take place after the Olympics, has apparently resulted in pressure to name VP selections before the Olympics begin on August 8 (lasting until August 24).  The Democratic Convention does not begin until the day after the closing ceremony of the Olympics (August 25) and runs until August 28.  Almost immediately thereafter, the Republican Convention begins on Labor Day (September 1) running until the 4th.  Out of fear that a Vice-Presidential selection could be upstaged by the Olympics, both parties are expected to announce their candidates’ picks before August 8.

Since the Democratic Convention takes place before the Republican conclave, Barack Obama is expected to announce his choice first.  Rumor has it that he will pick Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.  Speculation has run against Kaine as the VP choice because he has been the Governor of Virginia for only two years and he has no experience in Washington, D.C. politics.  These considerations, combined with Obama’s short history in the Senate, have dominated the discussions concerning Kaine’s presence on the ticket.

Nevertheless, as we dig deeper into Kaine’s background, we find plenty of good experience to qualify him for the Vice-Presidency and make him an attractive vote-magnet for the Democratic ticket.  For starters, we have the “Southerner” factor.  It is imperative for Obama to pick a Southerner as his running mate, if he expects to have a chance in Dixieland.  Beyond that, Kaine has a history of being an “activist Christian”.  This should have a favorable impact on Southern voters preoccupied with religious issues (i.e. about 95 percent of them).  Although Kaine belongs to the “wrong” Christian religion for most Southerners (Roman Catholicism) he did take a year off from Harvard Law School to help the Jesuit order of priests and assist with their missionary work in Honduras.  Digging deeper into that fact, we can expect to see some big appeal to Latin-American voters, an important voting bloc in the State of Florida.

On the issue of Kaine’s experience, we need to keep in mind that he is the Governor of Virginia, a state literally “next door” to our nation’s capitol.  Although he has been the Governor for only two years, his previous job was that of Lieutenant Governor of his state.  The role of a Lieutenant Governor is identical to that of the Vice-President: being the President of the Senate.  As President of the Virginia Senate for four years, he had the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to be an effective President of the United States Senate.  He previously served as the Mayor of Richmond, the state’s capitol city.  He therefore does have some executive experience, although at the municipal level, as in the case of Rudy Giuliani.

As an alumnus of Harvard Law School, he has a bond with Obama and he has the credentials to demonstrate a significantly greater degree of concern for the rule of law, than that of our current VP, who, like his partner-in-crime, George W. Bush, never went to law school.

As Governor of Virginia, he gave the Democratic response to the State of the Union address, given by George W. Bush on January 21, 2006.  His role as spokesman for the Democratic Party, to rebut Bush’s speech targeting (among other things) the now-defunct “Axis of Evil”, highlighted his prominence as a national figure in the Democratic Party at that point in his career.

His humble background is similar to that of Barack Obama.  Tim Kaine is the son of a welder.  The fact that he grew up in Missouri could help draw the interest of that state’s voters.  His rise from a modest upbringing to Harvard Law School grad and on to government, makes him a kindred spirit to Obama.

Hillary Clinton’s fanatic supporters are now facing up to the fact that she will not appear in any capacity on the 2008 Democratic ticket.  However, we may yet see some outrage when the stake is finally driven through the heart of her candidacy, with the announcement of Tim Kane as Obama’s Vice-Presidential choice.