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Defending Reagan

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June 4, 2009

In case you’ve wondered whether Nobel laureates ever emit brain farts, Paul Krugman answered that question in the May 31 edition of The New York Times.  His column of that date targeted former President Ronald Reagan for causing our current economic crisis:

There’s plenty of blame to go around these days.  But the prime villains behind the mess we’re in were Reagan and his circle of advisers — men who forgot the lessons of America’s last great financial crisis, and condemned the rest of us to repeat it.

I was never a big fan of Ronald Reagan.  My reaction to his nomination as the Republican Presidential candidate in 1980, conjured up James Coburn’s sarcastic line from the movie In Like Flint:  “An actor for President!”  Reagan’s legacy was exaggerated — which is why the book, Tear Down This Myth by Will Bunch, is available on this site, under the “Featured Books” section on the left side of this page.  I never believed that Reagan deserved all the credit he was given for the collapse of the former Soviet Union.  In my opinion, that distinction belongs to Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity (the former Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union) and his old buddy, Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II.  In fact, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the demise of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.

Another literary deflation of that aspect of the Reagan legend can be found in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan:  A History of the End of the Cold War by James Mann.  In his review of that book for The Washington Post, Ronald Steel noted how James Mann addressed the claim that Reagan broke up the Soviet Union:

And in 1991 the Soviet Communist Party disintegrated and with it ultimately the Soviet Union itself.  Did Reagan make it happen?  This would be too strong, Mann insists.  The Cold War ended largely because Gorbachev “had abandoned the field.”

Despite my own feelings about the Reagan legacy, upon reading Paul Krugman’s attempt to blame Ronald Reagan for the economic meltdown, I immediately rejected that idea.  What became interesting was that in the aftermath of that article, commentators from “left-leaning” news sources voiced objections to the piece.  For example, William Greider is the national affairs correspondent for The Nation.  On his own blog, Greider wrote an essay entitled:  “Krugman Gets His History Wrong”.  While upbraiding Krugman, Mr. Greider took care to note the complicity of the Democrats in causing the current economic crisis:

What Krugman leaves out is that financial deregulation actually started two years earlier — before the Gipper got to Washington.  A Democratic Congress and Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) enacted the Monetary Control Act of 1980 which removed all remaining controls on interest rates and repealed the federal law prohibiting usury (note that sky-high interest rates and ruinous predatory lending have been with us ever since).  It was the 1980 legislation that took the lid off banking and doomed the savings and loan industry, the mainstay that used to provide housing loans and home mortgages.  The thrifts were able to raise capital because they were allowed to pay a half percent more in interest to depositors.  Bankers wanted them out of the way.  The Democratic party obliged.

Robert Scheer is the editor of Truthdig.  The columns he writes for Truthdig regularly appear in The Nation.  (He is famous for getting Jimmy Carter to admit for Playboy magazine, that Carter often “lusts in his heart for other women”.)  Mr. Scheer’s reaction to Krugman’s vilification of Reagan as the saboteur of the economy includes such words as “disingenuous” and “perverse”.  Beyond that, Sheer lays blame for this crisis where it properly belongs:

Reagan didn’t do it, but Clinton-era Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, now a top economic adviser in the Obama White House, did.  They, along with then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Republican congressional leaders James Leach and Phil Gramm, blocked any effective regulation of the over-the-counter derivatives that turned into the toxic assets now being paid for with tax dollars.

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How can Krugman ignore the wreckage wrought during the Clinton years by the gang of five?  Rubin, who convinced President Clinton to end the New Deal restrictions on the merger of financial entities, went on to help run the too-big-to-fail Citigroup into the ground.  Gramm became a top officer at the nefarious UBS bank.  Greenspan’s epitaph should be his statement to Congress in July 1998 that “regulation of derivatives transactions that are privately negotiated by professionals is unnecessary.”  That same week Summers assured banking lobbyists that the Clinton administration was committed to preventing government regulation of swaps and other derivatives trading.

Thank goodness Eliot “Socks” Spitzer is still around, writing for Slate.  His most recent article about the economy not only provides an accurate assessment of the cause of the problem  —  it also suggests some solutions:

We have had a fundamentally misguided industrial policy over the past decade.  Yes, industrial policy is a dirty phrase to many, some of whom would argue that we haven’t had one, and indeed shouldn’t.  But the truth is we did have one:  to leverage up and guarantee the bets of a financial services sector that has now collapsed and left nothing of value in its wake.

What would be a better approach?  A policy to support those sectors that actually create goods and value.  Investment in transformational technology and infrastructure are core national needs.  So why not start with a government order for 500,000 electric cars, subject to an RFP two years from now, by which time a true electric car prototype will have been developed?  It should be open to any manufacturer, as long as 75 percent of the value of the car is domestically produced.  I don’t care if the name on the plate is GM or Toyota, as long as the value added is here.  (I prefer a “Toyota” produced in Tennessee to a “GM” produced in China.  Why struggle to save the shell of a company –GM– that intends to ship jobs overseas anyway?)  Guaranteeing an order of 500,000 will give manufacturers the needed scale to generate profits and reassure private customers that service and support will be around for the long haul.  And the federal government could also issue an RFP for recharging stations, to be built by private companies, along the interstate highway system, wherever there is a traditional filling station, so that recharging will be possible.

(By the way:  An “RFP” is a Request for Proposals, or bids, on a government project — just in case you were thinking it might mean “request for prostitutes”.)

I have always been a fan of Socks Spitzer.  His personal story underscores the simple truth that all of us, regardless of our accomplishments, are only human and we all make mistakes  —  even Nobel Prize winners such as Paul Krugman.

Somebody Really Loves Goldman Sachs

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May 17, 2009

The recent article about Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, appearing in the April 26 edition of The New York Times, seems to have helped fan the flames of the current outrage concerning the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  Turbo Tim was president of the New York Fed during the five years prior to his appointment as Treasury Secretary.  Becker and Morgenson pointed out many of the ways in which “conflict of interest” seems to be one of the cornerstones of that institution:

The New York Fed is, by custom and design, clubby and opaque.  It is charged with curbing banks’ risky impulses, yet its president is selected by and reports to a board dominated by the chief executives of some of those same banks. Traditionally, the New York Fed president’s intelligence-gathering role has involved routine consultation with financiers, though Mr. Geithner’s recent predecessors generally did not meet with them unless senior aides were also present, according to the bank’s former general counsel.

By those standards, Mr. Geithner’s reliance on bankers, hedge fund managers and others to assess the market’s health — and provide guidance once it faltered — stood out.

The New York Fed is probably the most important of the nation’s twelve Federal Reserve Banks, since its jurisdiction includes the heart of America’s financial industry.  As the Times piece pointed out, this resulted in the same type of “revolving door” opportunities as those enjoyed by members of Congress who became lobbyists and vice versa:

A revolving door has long connected Wall Street and the New York Fed.  Mr. Geithner’s predecessors, E. Gerald Corrigan and William J. McDonough, wound up as investment-bank executives.  The current president,William C. Dudley, came from Goldman Sachs.

The New York Fed’s current chairman, Stephen Friedman, has become a subject of controversy these days, because of his position as director and shareholder of Goldman Sachs.   Goldman sought and received expedited approval to become a “bank holding company” last September, thus coming under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve and becoming eligible for the ten billion dollars in TARP bailout money it eventually received.  After Goldman became subject to the New York Fed’s oversight (with Friedman as the New York Fed chairman) the Fed made decisions that impacted Goldman’s financial state.  Although this controversy was discussed here and here by The Wall Street Journal, that publication’s new owner, Rupert Murdoch, now requires a $104 annual on-line subscription fee to read his publication over the Internet. Sorry Rupert:  Homey don’t play that.  Although Slate provided us with an interesting essay on the Friedman controversy by Eliot “Socks” Spitzer, the best read was the commentary by Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig.  Here are some important points from Scheer’s article, “Cashing In on ‘Government Sachs’ “:

When N.Y. Fed Chairman Stephen Friedman bought stock in the company that he once headed, and where he still serves as a director, he was already in violation of Federal Reserve policy and was hoping for a waiver to permit him to hold his existing multi-million-dollar stock stash and to remain on the Goldman board.  The waiver was requested last October by Timothy Geithner, then the president of the N.Y. Fed and now Treasury secretary.  Yet,without having received that waiver, Friedman went ahead in December and purchased 37,300 additional shares.  With shares he added in January, after the waiver was granted, he ended up with 98,600 shares in Goldman Sachs, worth a total of $13,330,720 at the close of trading on Tuesday.

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As Jerry Jordan, former president of the Fed Bank in Cleveland, told the Journal in reference to Friedman’s obvious conflict of interest, “He should have resigned.”

Unfortunately, this was not the view during the reign of Geithner, who argued that Friedman needed to remain chairman of the N.Y. Fed board to find a suitable replacement for Geithner as he moved on to be secretary of the Treasury.  Friedman chose a fellow former Goldman Sachs exec for the job.

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Geithner is a protege of former Goldman Sachs chairman Rubin.  And it was therefore not surprising when he picked Mark Patterson, a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, to be his chief of staff at the Treasury Department.  That appointment was made on the same day that Geithner announced new rules for limiting the influence of registered lobbyists.  Need more be said?

Yes, there are a couple more things:  Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to Barack Obama’s Presidential election campaign, with a total of $980,945 according to OpenSecrets.org.  President Obama nominated Gary Gensler of Goldman Sachs to become Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  As Ken Silverstein reported for Harpers, this nomination has stalled, since a “hold” was placed on the nomination by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  Mr. Silverstein quoted from the statement released by the office of Senator Sanders concerning the rationale for the hold:

Mr. Gensler worked with Sen. Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan to exempt credit default swaps from regulation, which led to the collapse of A.I.G. and has resulted in the largest taxpayer bailout in U.S.history.   He supported Gramm-Leach-Bliley, which allowed banks like Citigroup to become “too big to fail.”  He worked to deregulate electronic energy trading, which led to the downfall of Enron and the spike in energy prices.  At this moment in our history, we need an independent leader who will help create a new culture in the financial marketplace and move us away from the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior which has caused so much harm to our economy.

“Change you can believe in”, huh?