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Thinking Clearly During An Election Year

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The non-stop bombardment of inane, partisan yammering which assaults us during an election year, makes it even more refreshing when a level-headed, clear thinker catches our attention.  One popular subject of debate during the current election cycle has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the 2009 stimulus bill).  In stark contrast with the propaganda you have been hearing about the 2009 stimulus (from both political parties), a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? brought us a rare, objective analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.

Matt Steinglass of The Economist recently wrote a great essay on the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate, which included a discussion of Mike Grabell’s new book:

The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written:  a detailed investigation of what does and doesn’t work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy.  But that wasn’t the debate we had.  Instead we had a debate about the very concept of whether the government ought to spend money counter-cyclically during a recession in order to keep the economy from collapsing, or whether it should tighten its belt along with consumers and businesses in order to generate confidence in the financial markets and allow markets to clear.  We had a debate about whether governments should respond to recessions with deficit spending or austerity.

The ProPublica website gave us a peek at Mike Grabell’s book by publishing a passage concerning how the stimulus helped America maintain its status as a competitor in the electric car industry.  Nevertheless, America’s failure to support the new technology with the same zeal as its Asian competitors could push domestic manufacturers completely out of the market:

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015.  Even many in the industry say the target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run.  South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade.

As Matt Steinglass concluded in his essay for The Economist, current economic circumstances (as well as the changed opinions of economists John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson) indicate that the proponents of economic stimulus have won the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate:

The 2010 elections took place at a moment when people seemed to have lost faith in Keynesianism.  The 2012 elections are taking place at a moment when people have lost faith in expansionary austerity.

Although the oil industry has done a successful job of convincing the public that jobs will be lost if the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, big oil has done a better job of distracting the public from understanding how many jobs will be lost if America fails to earn a niche in the electric vehicle market.

The politicization of the debate over how to address the ongoing unemployment crisis was the subject of a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian lamented that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

The longer that corrective measures are delayed, the harder the task at hand will be and the greater the eventual costs to society.

*   *   *

In fact, our current unemployment crisis is a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations.

Mr. El-Erian noted that there is a faction – among the opposing forces in the debate over how to address unemployment – seeking a “killer app” which would effectuate dramatic and immediate progress.  He explained why those people aren’t being realistic:

There is no killer app.  Instead, Congress and the administration need to move simultaneously on three fronts that incorporate multiple measures:  those that address the immediate impediments to job creation, including a better mix of demand stimulus and medium-term fiscal reform involving both federal spending and revenue, as well as stronger remedies for housing and housing finance; those that deal with the longer-term enablers of productive employment, such as education, retraining and retooling; and those that strengthen the social safety nets to appropriately protect citizens in the interim.

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

In other words, while the election year lunacy continues, the unemployment crisis continues to act as “a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations”.  Worse yet, the expectation that our political leaders could “come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge” seems nearly as unrealistic as waiting for that “killer app”.  This is yet another reason why Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 election year.


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Too Cool To Fool

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It’s always reassuring to see that there are a good number of people among us who aren’t easily manipulated by “the powers that be”.  Let’s take a look at some examples:

Glen Ford is the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report.  On January 11, Mr. Ford discussed how – up until now – the Occupy Wall Street movement has managed to avoid being co-opted by the Democratic Party and MoveOn.org.  Unfortunately, the Obama regime may have succeeded in establishing a grip on OWS.  Glen Ford offered this explanation:

The Democratic Party may have entered the Occupy Wall Street movement through the “Black door,” in the form of Occupy The Dream, the Black ministers’ group led by former NAACP chief and Million Man March national director Dr. Benjamin Chavis and Baltimore mega-church pastor Rev. Jamal Bryant.  Both are fervent supporters of President Obama.

*   *   *

It appears that Occupy Wall Street’s new Black affiliate is also in “lock-step” with the corporate Democrat in the White House, whose administration has funneled trillions of dollars to Wall Street and greatly expanded U.S. theaters of war.

*   *   *

Black ministers in campaign mode routinely depict Obama’s political troubles as indistinguishable from threats to “The Dream,” whose embodiment is ensconced in the White House.  That’s simply common currency among Black preachers pushing for Obama.

*   *   *

It is highly unlikely – damn near inconceivable – that Occupy The Dream will do anything that might embarrass this president.  Its ministers can be expected to electioneer for Obama at every opportunity.  Their January 16 actions are directed at the Federal Reserve, which is technically independent from the executive branch of government – although, in practice, the Fed has been Obama’s principal mechanism for bailing out the banks.  Will the ministers pretend, next Monday, that the president is somehow removed from the Fed’s massive transfers of the people’s credit and cash to Wall Street over the past three years?

*   *   *

At this late stage, there is no antidote to the potential cooptation, except to rev up the movement’s confrontation with the oligarchic powers-that-be – including Wall Street’s guy in the White House.  Let’s see what happens if OWS demonstrators join with Occupy The Dream at Federal Reserve sites on January 16 carrying placards unequivocally implicating Obama in the Fed’s bailouts of the banksters, as Occupy demonstrators have done so often in the past.  Will the Dream’s leadership be in “lock-step” with that?  Maybe so – I’ve heard that miracles sometimes do happen.

Anyone who challenges the Obama administration’s symbiotic relationship with the Wall Street banksters invites accusations of advancing the Republican agenda for regaining control of the White House.  This problem will be solved once a populist third-party or Independent candidate rises to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent.  Beyond that, an African-American commentator who dares to expose Obama as a tool of Wall Street is likely to face harsh criticism.  Glen Ford has demonstrated more courage than most Americans by taking a stand against this venal administration.

Another exemplary individual, whose opinions were never compromised to justify or rationalize the current administration’s tactics, has been economist Joseph Stiglitz – the Nobel laureate who found himself ignored and shut out by the Obama administration ab initio.  Professor Stiglitz recently wrote a commentary entitled, “The Perils of 2012” in which he dared to predict an election year fraught with economic despair.  Such conditions make for an incumbent President’s worst nightmare.  As a result, non-Republican economists are expected to avoid such prognostication.  Nevertheless, Professor Stiglitz proceeded to paint an ugly picture of what we can expect in the near term, after first reminding us that there has been no sound policy advanced for mitigating the devastation experienced by the middle class as a result of the 2008 financial crisis:

The year 2011 will be remembered as the time when many ever-optimistic Americans began to give up hope.  President John F. Kennedy once said that a rising tide lifts all boats.  But now, in the receding tide, Americans are beginning to see not only that those with taller masts had been lifted far higher, but also that many of the smaller boats had been dashed to pieces in their wake.

In that brief moment when the rising tide was indeed rising, millions of people believed that they might have a fair chance of realizing the “American Dream.”  Now those dreams, too, are receding.  By 2011, the savings of those who had lost their jobs in 2008 or 2009 had been spent.  Unemployment checks had run out.  Headlines announcing new hiring – still not enough to keep pace with the number of those who would normally have entered the labor force – meant little to the 50 year olds with little hope of ever holding a job again.

Indeed, middle-aged people who thought that they would be unemployed for a few months have now realized that they were, in fact, forcibly retired.  Young people who graduated from college with tens of thousands of dollars of education debt cannot find any jobs at all.  People who moved in with friends and relatives have become homeless.  Houses bought during the property boom are still on the market or have been sold at a loss.  More than seven million American families have lost their homes.

*   *   *

The pragmatic commitment to growth that one sees in Asia and other emerging markets today stands in contrast to the West’s misguided policies, which, driven by a combination of ideology and vested interests, almost seem to reflect a commitment not to grow.

As a result, global economic rebalancing is likely to accelerate, almost inevitably giving rise to political tensions.  With all of the problems confronting the global economy, we will be lucky if these strains do not begin to manifest themselves within the next twelve months.

Another commentator who has been “too cool to fool” is equities market analyst, Barry Ritholtz.  One of his recent blog postings documented how Ritholtz never accepted the propagandistic pronouncements of the National Retailers Association about Christmas season retail sales.  Once the hype began on Black Friday, Ritholtz began his own campaign of debunking the questionable data, touted to boost unjustified confidence about the direction of our economy.  Ritholtz concluded the piece with this statement:

Those of you who may have downplayed the potential for a recession to start over the next 12-18 months way want to revisit your views on this.  It is far from the low possibility many economists have it pegged at.

Fortunately, not everyone has been as imperceptive as those on the Obama administration’s economic team who admitted that as late as 2009, they underestimated the extent of economic contraction resulting from the 2008 crisis.  It’s time for the voting public to dis-employ the political hacks who have allowed this condition to fester.  One effective path toward this goal involves voting against incumbents in primary elections.  Keep in mind that America’s Congressional districts have been gerrymandered to protect incumbents.  As a result, any plan to defeat those officeholders in a general election could be an exercise in futility.  Voting against current members of Congress during the primary process can open the door for more capable candidates during the general election.  Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 primary season.


 

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Congress Under The Microscope

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The November 13 broadcast of 60 Minutes, which featured a piece by Steve Kroft about Congressional insider trading, gave some needed momentum to the effort seeking a ban on the practice.  I originally wrote about this activity in September of 2009:

A recent report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn revealed how the law prohibiting “insider trading” (i.e. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.

*   *   *

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

In February of 2011, I discussed the subject again, including the history of Congressman Brian Baird’s introduction of  H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act) in January of 2009.  On November 14, I was pleased to report that a conservative pundit – Peter Schweizer – a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – had joined the battle against Congressional insider trading:

A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

On December 28, J.R. Dunn – consulting editor of the conservative American Thinker, enthusiastically weighed-in with a supportive review of Peter Schweizer’s book.  Beyond that, Dunn’s opening remarks addressed the greater problem:

Crony capitalism is the most serious current danger to the American community, a threat not simply to government or the economy, but to our very way of life.  It is the worst such threat since the trusts and monopolies of the early 20th century, and in much the same way. Cronyism is one of the major forces behind the establishment of the corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that has been taking shape in this country over the past two decades, a synthetic privileged class made up in large part of politicians, hustlers, and hangers-on who have become expert in exploiting the rest of us.

Fortunately, we have now reached a point where greater scrutiny is being used to investigate the manner in which Congress-cretins enrich themselves while in office.  David Richards wrote a great piece for the Daily Mail, which focused on the fact that over the past 25 years, the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen:

Against a backdrop of a vast budget deficit and fears of the fragility of the economy, analysis by the Washington Post shows that the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled over 25 years while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen.

It calculated that their median net worth, between 1984 and 2009 and excluding home equity, rose from $280,000 to $725,000.

Over those same 25 years the wealth of the average U.S. family slipped from $20,500 from $20,600, a University of Michigan study shows.

The Daily Mail article went on to point out that members of Congress are actually doing significantly better than America’s most wealthy citizens – who are so zealously defended by critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The New York Times’ report into the wealth of members of Congress found that they were also getting rich compared with affluent Americans.

It found that the median net worth of members of Congress rose 15 per cent from 2004 to 2010 as the net worth of the richest 10 per cent of the country remained for the most part flat.

This disparity between those they represent also translated into a wider gap in their experiences of the economy, the Post found.

It interviewed Gary Myers, the son of a bricklayer, a Republican who entered Congress in 1975. He said his experience of having worked as a foreman in a steel mill shaped his outlook and led him to vote in favour of raising the minimum wage and helped him to understand the need for workers to have a safety net.

‘It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,’ he told the Post. ‘I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.’

The same area is now represented by Republican Mike Kelly who was elected last year. After graduating he married the heiress to an oil fortune and took over his father’s car dealership where he had worked as a youngster.

He told the paper he believed he was overtaxed already and that unemployment benefits made some people less willing to look for employment.

On the other hand, there is one Congressman’s investment portfolio, which is being criticized for other reasons.  In fact, I’m sure that many investment analysts are having a good laugh as they read Jason Zweig’s recent posting for his new Total Return blog at The Wall Street Journal:

Yes, about 21% of Rep. Paul’s holdings are in real estate and roughly 14% in cash.  But he owns no bonds or bond funds and has only 0.1% in stock funds.  Furthermore, the stock funds that Rep. Paul does own are all “short,” or make bets against, U.S. stocks. One is a “double inverse” fund that, on a daily basis, goes up twice as much as its stock benchmark goes down.

The remainder of Rep. Paul’s portfolio – fully 64% of his assets – is entirely in gold and silver mining stocks.  He owns no Apple, no ExxonMobil, no Procter & Gamble, no General Electric, no Johnson & Johnson, not even a diversified mutual fund that holds a broad basket of stocks.  Rep. Paul doesn’t own stock in any major companies at all except big precious-metals stocks like Barrick Gold, Goldcorp and Newmont Mining.

*   *   *

Rep. Paul appears to be a strict buy-and-hold investor who rarely trades; he has held many of his mining stocks since at least 2002. But, as gold and silver prices have fallen sharply since September, precious-metals equities have also taken a pounding, with many dropping 20% or more.  That exposes the risk in making a big bet on one narrow sector.

At our request, William Bernstein, an investment manager at Efficient Portfolio Advisors in Eastford, Conn., reviewed Rep. Paul’s portfolio as set out in the annual disclosure statement.  Mr. Bernstein says he has never seen such an extreme bet on economic catastrophe.  “This portfolio is a half-step away from a cellar-full of canned goods and nine-millimeter rounds,” he says.

There are many possible doomsday scenarios for the U.S. economy and financial markets, explains Mr. Bernstein, and Rep. Paul’s portfolio protects against only one of them:  unexpected inflation accompanied by a collapse in the value of the dollar.  If deflation (to name one other possibility) occurs instead, “this portfolio is at great risk” because of its lack of bonds and high exposure to gold.

At least Congressman Ron Paul is authentic enough to “place his money where his mouth is” when criticizing Federal Reserve monetary policy.

As election year progresses, the current trend of “turning over rocks” to investigate the financial dealings of those in Congress could make things quite interesting.


 

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Congressional Sleaze In The Spotlight

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Last February, I wrote a piece entitled, “License To Steal”, concerning a certain legal loophole which allows members of Congress to trade stocks using “insider information”:

On January 26, 2009, Congressman Brian Baird introduced H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  The bill was intended to resolve the situation concerning one of the more sleazy “perks” of serving in Congress.  As it presently stands, the law prohibiting “insider trading” (e.g. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.  In that scenario, Ms. Stewart’s sale of the ImClone stock would have been entirely legal.  That’s because the laws which apply to you and I do not apply to those in Congress.  Needless to say, within six months of its introduction, H.R.682 was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties where it died of neglect.  Since that time, there have been no further efforts to propose similar legislation.

At a time when the public is finally beginning to understand how our elected officials are benefiting from a system of “legalized graft” in the form of campaign contributions, more attention is being focused on how the “real money” is made in Congress.  A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

Peter J. Boyer wrote an article for Newsweek, explaining how Peter Schweizer came about writing this book.  Schweizer is the William J. Casey research fellow at the Hoover Institution and as Boyer pointed out, Schweizer is considered by liberal critics as a “right wing hit man”.  It’s nice to see someone from the right provide us with an important treatise on crony capitalism.  The book exposes insider trading by both Democrats and Republicans – hell-bent on profiteering from the laws they enact.  Boyer’s essay provided us with some examples of the sleazy trades made by Congress-cretins, as described in Throw Them All Out.  Here are a few examples:

Indeed, Schweizer reports that, during the debate over Obama’s health-care reform package, John Boehner, then the House minority leader, was investing “tens of thousands of dollars” in health-insurance-company stocks, which made sizable gains when the proposed public option in the reform deal was killed.

*   *   *

One of the more dramatic episodes in the book recounts the trading activity of Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus, of Alabama, who, as the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, was privy to sensitive high-level meetings during the 2008 financial crisis and proceeded to make a series of profitable stock-option trades.

Bachus was known in the House as a guy who liked to play the market, and in fact he was pretty good at it; one year, he reported a capital gain in excess of $150,000 from his trading activities. More striking is that Bachus boldly carried forth his trading in the teeth of the impending financial collapse, the nightmarish dimensions of which he had learned about first-hand in confidential briefings from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke.  On Sept. 19, 2008, after attending two such briefings, Bachus bought options in an index fund (ProShares UltraShort QQQ) that effectively amounted to a bet that the market would fall.  That is indeed what happened, and, on Sept. 23, Bachus sold his “short” options, purchased for $7,846, for more than $13,000—nearly doubling his investment in four days.

Around the time Congress and the Bush administration worked out a TARP bailout, Bachus made another options buy and again nearly doubled his money.

*   *   *

After the first briefing from Bernanke and Paulson, brokers for Democratic Congressman Jim Moran, of Virginia, and his wife sold their shares in 90 companies, dodging the losses that others who stayed in the market would soon face. Republican Rep. Shelley Capito, of West Virginia, sold between $100,000 and $250,000 of Citigroup stock the day after the first meeting, recording capital gains on Citigroup transactions in that rocky period.

Peter Schweizer’s analysis of the bipartisan culture of corruption on Capitol Hill reinforces one of my favorite criticisms of American government:  Our Sham Two-Party System.  The Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party owes its allegiance to no population, no principle, no cause – other than pocketing as much money as possible.  Just as there have been some recent “pushback” efforts by outraged citizens, Schweizer is now advocating a “Throw Them All Out” campaign.  This could have a potentially significant impact on Congress, because the term of office in the House of Representatives lasts for only two years.  Consider Schweizer’s thought at the close of the Newsweek piece:

“I was troubled,” he says, “by the fact that the political elite gets to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us.  In the process of researching this book, I came to the conclusion that political party and political philosophy matter a lot less than we think.  Washington is a company town, and politics is a business. People wonder why we don’t get more change in Washington, and the reason is that the permanent political class is very comfortable.  Business is good.”

I concluded my February 28 posting with this point:

“Inside information” empowers the party in possession of that knowledge with something known as “information asymmetry”, allowing that person to take advantage of (or steal from) the less-informed person on the other side of the trade.  Because membership in Congress includes a license to steal, can we ever expect those same individuals to surrender those licenses?  Well, if they were honest  .   .   .

A successful “Throw Them All Out” campaign would obviate the necessity of attempting to convince this Congress to pass the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  If the next Congress knows that its political survival is depending on its passage of the STOCK Act, we might see it become law.


 

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