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The Stupid War Against The Stimulus

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February 23, 2009

We keep hearing rants against President Obama’s economic stimulus bill.  The final version of the bill was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate on February 13.  On February 17, it was signed into law by our new President.  It is now called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Nevertheless, there are people out there (nearly all of them Republicans) fuming about the stimulus bill, despite the fact that the debate is now over.  The bill has already gone into effect.  So what’s the point?  Many commentators feel that currently, there is fierce competition to stand out as the new leader of the Republican Party.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal apparently believes he can advance his career by complaining about the stimulus and refusing to accept money allocated under the stimulus bill to expand eligibility for unemployment compensation because it would increase taxes on employers.  As Robert Pear and J. David Goodman reported for The New York Times, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said that he, too, would reject the money for expanding unemployment insurance:

“There is some we will not take in Mississippi,” Governor Barbour told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.  “We want more jobs.  You don’t get more jobs by putting an extra tax on creating jobs.”

The article noted that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (also a Republican) would be happy to take any money from the stimulus bill that had been rejected by any other governor.

The hostility against the stimulus just doesn’t make sense.  A few Republicans may think they might look like heroes to the traditional Republican “base” right now, but as the stimulus plan begins to bear fruit, they are going to look like fools.

Tom Friedman discussed one intriguing conversation he had with a true American capitalist (the sort of voter Republicans always have taken for granted) in the February 21 New York Times:

The wind and solar industries in America “were dead in the fourth quarter,” said John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy, which builds and operates cutting-edge solar-thermal plants in the Mojave Desert.  Almost five gigawatts of new solar-thermal projects — the equivalent of five big nuclear plants — at various stages of permitting were being held up because of a lack of financing.

“All of these projects will now go ahead,” said Woolard.  “You are talking about thousands of jobs  …  We really got something right in this legislation.”

These jobs will be in engineering, constructing and operating huge solar systems and wind farms and manufacturing new photovoltaics.  Together they will drive innovation in all these areas — and move wind and solar technology down the cost-volume learning curve so they can compete against fossil fuels and become export industries at the “ChinIndia price,” that is the price at which they can scale in China and India.

Mr. Wollard “gets it” but the usual Republican spokesmen don’t.  As Jonathan Alter points out in the March 2 edition of Newsweek:

Columnist Charles Krauthammer called the $787 billion stimulus package “a legislative abomination,” and Karl Rove wrote that “the more Americans learn about the bill, the less they like it.”

Polls say otherwise.  The public likes the signs of action, respects that the new president is willing to admit error and appreciates his constant reminders that there are no easy cures to what ails us.

*   *   *

The GOP did a good job trivializing the stimulus, but Obama may have the last laugh.  The package is so big, and stretches across so many states, that it provides him at least four years of photo ops as Daddy O on tour, bringing home the jobs right in your local media market.  It was hardly a coincidence that video of bridge repair in Missouri began airing only moments after the president signed the bill.

As Walter Alarkon explained in his February 21 posting on The Hill website, there is a split among Republican governors as to whether the party’s next leader will be a centrist or a traditional conservative.  As his piece demonstrated, there are some Republicans who “get it”:

One possible White House hopeful, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), wouldn’t criticize the stimulus despite his red state bona fides.  He said that the federal money would fund infrastructure projects that could help the Beehive State’s economy.

“You have to have a party that is results oriented, that actually develops solutions to some of our nagging problems of today,” he said.

He said that Republicans who turn to “gratuitous rhetoric” will continue to lose.

Another Republican who “gets it” is Florida Governor Charlie Crist.  During his February 22 appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press, David Gregory asked Governor Crist whether he thought it was a mistake for the Republican Party to define itself by opposition to the stimulus.  Governor Crist gave this response:

Well, it may be.  All I know is I have to do what I think is in the best interest of the people of Florida.  And from my perspective, it’s to try and help them.  Help them every single day in every way that I can in education, in infrastructure, in health care; do the kinds of things that keep us from having to raise taxes.  You know, another part that people don’t talk about in the stimulus bill is that it cuts taxes.  About a third of it cuts taxes.   . . .   At the same time, because of the stimulus we’ll be able to pay our teachers more next year than we were this past year.  So I think it works, it works well, it helps people, it does what’s right.

How does one argue with that?  The current moot debate over the stimulus bill simply underscores one of the reasons why the Republicans suffered such huge losses in 2006 and 2008.  They need to abandon the failed strategy of focusing on the preferences of their so-called “base” and start representing the rest of America.  If they don’t learn this lesson, they will never win a majority in the Senate or the House and they will have to abandon their dreams of another Republican President.

Another Troubling Appointment By Obama

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February 5, 2009

It all started with Bill Richardson.  On January 4, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that he was withdrawing as nominee for the position of Commerce Secretary, due to an investigation into allegations of influence peddling.

Then there was a brief moment of concern over the fact that Treasury Secretary nominee, Timothy Geithner, was a little late with some self-employment tax payments.  Since his new position would put him in charge of the Internal Revenue Service, many people found this shocking.  Even more shocking was his admission that he prepared his income taxes using the TurboTax software program.  That entire controversy was overlooked because Geithner has been regarded as the only person in Washington who fully understands the TARP bailout bill (as Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter once said).

On February 3, two more Obama appointees had to step aside.  The first was Nancy Killefer, who had been selected to become “Chief Performance Officer”, in which role she would have been tasked with cleaning up waste in government programs.  Her situation didn’t sound all that scandalous.  The Wall Street Journal explained that she “… had a $946.69 tax lien imposed on her home by the District of Columbia for unpaid taxes on household help, a debt she had satisfied long ago.”  Later that day, Tom Daschle had to withdraw his nomination to become Secretary of Health and Human Services.  It seemed that his failure to timely pay over $100,000 in taxes was just part of the problem.  As the previously-mentioned Wall Street Journal article pointed out, the Daschle nomination provided additional embarrassment for President Obama:

Beyond the tax issue, Mr. Daschle was increasingly being portrayed as a Washington insider who made a fortune by trading on his Beltway connections — an example of the kind of culture Mr. Obama had pledged to change.

Meanwhile, many Democrats were expressing dismay over the February 2 announcement that Republican Senator Judd Gregg had been tapped to become Commerce Secretary.  Back in 1995, as United States Senator representing New Hampshire, he voted in favor of a budget measure that would have abolished the Commerce Department.  To many, this seemed too much like the George W. Bush tactic of putting a saboteur in charge of an administrative agency.  Nevertheless, Senator Gregg was ready to address those concerns.  As Liz Sidoti reported for the Associated Press:

In a conference call with reporters, Gregg dismissed questions about the vote.

“I say those were my wild and crazy days,” he said.  “My record on supporting Commerce far exceeds any one vote that was cast early on in the context of an overall budget.”

Gregg said he’s strongly supported the agency, particularly its scientific initiatives, including at the agency’s largest department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Finally, on Wednesday February 5, those who concurred with President Obama’s appointment of Mary Schapiro as Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had good reason to feel anxious.  That day brought us the long-awaited testimony of independent financial fraud investigator, Harry Markopolos, before the House Financial Services Committee.  Back in May of 2000, Mr. Markopolos tried to alert the SEC to the fact that Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund was a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.  As Markopolos explained in his testimony, he repeatedly attempted to get the SEC to investigate this scam, only to be rebuffed on every occasion.  Although his testimony included some good advice directed to Ms. Schapiro about “cleaning up” the SEC, this portion of his testimony, as discussed by Marcy Gordon of the Associated Press, deserves some serious attention:

While the SEC is incompetent, the securities industry’s self-policing organization, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, is “very corrupt,” Markopolos charged.  That organization was headed until December by Schapiro, who has said Madoff carried out the scheme through his investment business and FINRA was empowered to inspect only the brokerage operation.

So Schapiro’s defense is that FINRA was empowered to inspect only brokerages and Madoff Investments was not a brokerage.  This doesn’t address Markopolos’ testimony that FINRA is “very corrupt”.  Mary Schapiro was the Chair and CEO of that “very corrupt” entity from 2006 until December of 2008.  Let’s not forget that during her tenure in that position she appointed Bernie Madoff’s son, Mark Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council.  The Mark Madoff appointment was discussed back on December 18 by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell, in The Wall Street Journal.  At that time, they provided an informative analysis of the SEC nominee’s track record, which should have discouraged the new President from appointing her as he did on his second day in office:

She was credited with beefing up enforcement while at the National Association of Securities Dealers and guiding the creation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which she now leads.  But some in the industry questioned whether she would be strong enough to get the SEC back on track.

*   *   *

Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers  . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul.  “The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

Since Ms. Schapiro took over Finra in 2006, the number of enforcement cases has dropped, in part because actions stemming from the tech-bubble collapse ebbed and the markets rebounded from 2002 to 2007.  The agency has been on the fringe of the major Wall Street blowups, and opted to focus on more bread-and-butter issues such as fraud aimed at senior citizens.

Out of the gate, Ms. Schapiro faces potential controversy.  In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.  Both sons of Mr. Madoff have denied any involvement in the massive Ponzi scheme their father has been accused of running.

I would be much more comfortable with a small-time tax cheat in charge of the SEC, than I am with Mary Schapiro in that position.  As his testimony demonstrates, Harry Markopolos is the person who should be running the SEC.

Palin Comparison

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September 1, 2008

In a perfect world, there would be a floor fight to take Sarah Palin off the ticket at the Republican Convention. It would make for some good TV this week.  On the Friday, August 29 program, Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO), National Public Radio’s Michel Martin made the strident claim that those who criticize Sarah Palin “do so at their peril”.  Sarah Palin is a Gumball.   There.  I will say it again, as well.  Although I would agree that anyone who resorts to sexist criticism of Palin does so at their own peril, there is plenty of room for reasoned dismay at McCain’s choice.  Meanwhile, Michel Martin’s claim that Palin’s experience is analogous to Tim Kaine’s experience, should have been made at Martin’s peril.  Actually, it was.  Tim Kaine is the Governor of a state that just happens to be next door to our nation’s Capitol.  Virginia’s population is 7,702,091 people.  The population of Alaska is less than one tenth of that at 683,478.  Although Kaine’s time served as Governor of Virginia is equivalent to the time served by Palin as Governor of Alaska, Kaine previously served four years as Lieutenant Governor of Virginia  — a job with similar day-to-day duties as those of the Vice-President of the United States.  You see, both the Lieutenant Governor and the Vice-President preside over a body called “the Senate”. The Lieutenant Governor presides over the State Senate and the Vice-President presides over the United States Senate.  The Gumball made the mistake of asking the question, into a TV camera, of what the everyday duties of the Vice-President might be.  Tim Kane learned the answer by presiding over the Virginia Senate for four years.  In case The Gumball doesn’t know (and she doesn’t, by her own admission) Kane’s duties as Lieutenant Governor matched those of the Vice President of the United States.  Michel Martin must be aware of this … she just might not want anyone else to be so aware.  Before Tim Kaine was Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, he was the Mayor of Richmond Virginia for four years.  Two years ago, The Gumball was the mayor of her home town:  Wasilla, Alaska (population 9,000).  Tim Kaine was the mayor of a city with a population over twenty times the size of Wasilla, Alaska, at 200,123 people.  Tim Kaine went to law school (Georgetown).  The Gumball didn’t, nor did John McCain.

The stupidity of this episode is “off the charts”.  On the heels of an outrageously successful Democratic Convention, McCain has made a desperate reach for those disgruntled supporters of Hillary Clinton.  At the same time, with his choice of The Gumball, McCain has sold out to the televangelist lobby in the hope of connecting with that ever-elusive Republican “base”.  The term “desperate” has been used by many commentators.  Jonathan Alter of Newsweek was kind enough to analogize the selection of Palin to a “Hail Mary” or “Hail Sarah” pass at the end of a close football game.  McCain’s media sycophants claim that McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate, reinforces his “maverick” persona.  To the contrary, if McCain really were a maverick, he would be standing up to the televangelist lobby, rather than sucking up to it, as he is with this choice.

Sarah Palin (a/k/a “The Gumball”) is a “wing nut” who wants creationism to be taught in public schools and who refuses to believe that global warming has been caused by human activity.  To her credit, Palin went to term with a baby known to have Down Syndrome, based on her anti-abortion stance.  Her ability to do the anti-abortion walk as well as the anti-abortion talk will give her some degree of “street cred” with a limited population.

Nevertheless, with his choice of Palin, McCain has alienated his own “base” – the independents, moderate Republicans and centrists who believed that once elected President, McCain would tear off the rubber mask and return to his old self.  As Arianna Huffington said a while ago:  “The John McCain of 2000 is not a candidate in this election.”  McCain’s choice of The Gumball just drove that message home.

The fact that The Gumball was not adequately vetted, has become glaringly obvious to many Republicans.  She hasn’t been Governor of Alaska for two years and yet, she is already in trouble there. A special prosecutor has been appointed to investigate her activity.  She has been accused of “abuse of power”.  Our current Vice-President has that as his middle name.  This situation should make life easy for those writing the negative ads about the Republican ticket.

As long as Michel Martin has directed our attention to Tim Kaine, let’s remember where he was born:  a city named St. Paul, Minnesota.  If you want to find out what life is like there now, with the Republican Convention taking place, read Lindsay Beyerstein’s article, “Inside an RNC Raid” at Firedoglake.com.  It will make you sick, with reports of warrantless searches at homes — even one owned by a former military police officer.  When a woman staying at the house discussed in the story asked for a warrant, she was detained.  Local police were blended with apparent “contractors” or private Gestapo-for-hire.  Of course, this is all completely illegal in the United States where we have lived for all our lives.  Those in control of the 2008 Republican Party don’t care about the rule of law.  They make a point of promoting “leaders” who know nothing about it, either.  The reasons for this are obvious.