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Transparent Dishonesty

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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.

Since that moment, an enormous list of broken campaign promises has buried those false assurances of transparency.  Pondering over the heap of Obama’s discarded “bait and switch” enticements can cause a person to wonder how this man expects to get re-elected  … until the Republican aspirants come into view.

A recent gimmick of the current administration has been the “We the People” initiative.  This project resulted in the creation of a platform on the White House website, allowing for citizens to create petitions requesting government action on certain issues:

The We the People platform on WhiteHouse.gov gives Americans a new way to create, share, and sign petitions that communicate your views about your government’s actions and policies.

A signature threshold was established, requiring 5,000 on-line “signatures” within a 30-day period.  The threshold has subsequently been increased to 25,000 signatures in a month:

If a petition meets the signature threshold, it will be reviewed by the Administration and an official response will be issued.  And we’ll make sure that the petition is sent to the appropriate policy makers in the Administration.

The White House began responding to those petitions on October 26.  On November 5, Nancy Atkinson reported for Universe Today that We the People are interested in UFOs and space aliens:

The White House has responded to two petitions asking the US government to formally acknowledge that aliens have visited Earth and to disclose to any intentional withholding of government interactions with extraterrestrial beings.  “The U.S. government has no evidence that any life exists outside our planet, or that an extraterrestrial presence has contacted or engaged any member of the human race,” said Phil Larson from the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy, on the WhiteHouse.gov website.  “In addition, there is no credible information to suggest that any evidence is being hidden from the public’s eye.”

5,387 people had signed the petition for immediately disclosing the government’s knowledge of and communications with extraterrestrial beings, and 12,078 signed the request for a formal acknowledgement from the White House that extraterrestrials have been engaging the human race.

The denials made by Phil Larson are as false now as they were many years ago, when a 15-year-old high school student named John Greenwald, Jr. began sending Freedom of Information Act requests to the Pentagon, Air Force and numerous government agencies to ascertain what our officials had learned about those Unidentified Flying Objects, which have aroused so much curiosity since the advent of the Internet.  Over the years, John Greenwald has amassed a collection of over 600,000 pages of documents, which are available for free on his website, The Black Vault.

I was amused by John Greenwald’s lecture, recounting how – as a teenager – he made fools of the bureaucrats, who were charged with the responsibility of stonewalling any inquiries concerning the UFO phenomenon.  At his website, Greenwald recounted some of the highlights of this experience:

When I started researching this phenomenon fifteen years ago, you quickly learn that the government and military alike dismiss the entire topic, deny any involvement or interest in it, and they claim they could explain the mystery after their official investigation back in 1969 – and haven’t collected anything since.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

John Greenwald hit paydirt when he came across a document entitled “Air Force Instruction 10-206” or “AFI 10-206” (a 2008 edition can be seen here).  Here is Greenwald’s explanation (in the third person) of where this lead took him:

In the regulation entitled, “Operational Reporting,” chapter 5 outlines procedures for cataloguing different types of sightings, including the third on the list, “Unidentified Flying Objects” or UFOs.  Although this reference to UFOs is not a reference to alien spacecraft, the fact remains that this publication shows that the military does have an interest in the phenomena, whatever it might be.

*   *   *

Upon further investigation, Greenewald uncovered that the reports made under this Air Force document were called CIRVIS, or Communication Instructions for Reporting Vital Intelligence Sightings, reports.  He noted that they are filed and sent to the NORAD installation –which he then found out when he filed a FOIA request for the records – that NORAD was not subject to the FOIA.  This was due to the fact that it was under control by both Canadian and U.S. forces – therefore excluding it from U.S. law.

But “in good faith” the request was processed under a special NORAD instruction allowing access to their documents, but they claim they found “no records.”

Pushing forward, a simple phone call by Greenewald to the Department of National Defence (DND) in Canada yielded more than 100 pages of UFO / CIRVIS reports. According to NORAD – there was nothing.  According to Canada – there was a pile of records.

On September 2, 2011 Lee Speigel of The Huffington Post interviewed John Greenwald about the extent of UFO information obtained for The Black Vault by way of the Freedom of Information Act.  Lee Speigel provided this account of what happened after that interview:

On Sept. 2, The Huffington Post made inquiries to the Air Force about the UFO directives.  A spokesman said he’d arrange an interview with an appropriate officer.  But before the interview was set up, the 111-page instruction manual was revised on Sept. 6, and the UFO instructions were deleted, as were other portions of the document, now shortened to 40 pages.

*   *   *

For several weeks, military officials failed to respond to HuffPost inquiries about the rewritten manual, which included changes to areas unrelated to UFOs.

Finally, on Oct. 5, after several follow-up calls, an Air Force major emailed a response, informing HuffPost that UFO reporting is not a duty of the armed forces branch.  He denied any cover-up, and instead said it was a coincidence that the document was updated after this news organization asked for an explanation.

The Huffington Post piece included the reaction from John Greenwald:

“They’ve had many opportunities to take [the UFO reference] off of this publication and now look at what happens,” said Greenewald.  “All of a sudden, when a major news outlet like Huffington Post starts asking questions about why UFOs are still on the books — to have that media outlet not get a fast response, number one; and number two, the military completely re-writes the regulation, changes it and UFOs are nowhere to be found — that’s a fascinating coincidence.”

Obama’s promised “transparency” seems to have befallen the same fate as “hope” and “change”.  President Clinton’s former Chief of Staff, John Podesta, is now a Visiting Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.  Here is a video clip of John Podesta, making the case for disclosure of data compiled by the United States government on the subject of UFOs.  In a speech before the National Press Club on November 14, 2007, Mr. Podesta said this:

“I think it’s time to open the books” (on government investigations of UFOs).    .  .  .  “We ought to do it because it’s right.  We ought to do it because the American people, quite frankly, CAN handle the truth and we ought to do it because it’s the law.”

Yes, Mr. Podesta  . . .  but it’s so much easier for our officials to just lie.  They lie about everything else.  Why should this subject be treated any differently?


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Circular Firing Squad

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I knew this would happen.  Near the end of Obama’s first year in office, I anticipated that the President’s polling numbers would eventually sink and his reelection campaign would face strong headwinds.  By that point – on the eve of his reelection campaign – someone would blame the defection of white voters for Obama’s failure to win a second term.  In December of 2009, I wrote a piece discussing how the “race card” would not serve as a “free pass” for the Disappointer-In-Chief.  I referenced critiques, written by several African-American commentators, who were more-than-a-little upset with Obama’s job performance during that first year.

As expected, once Obama’s approval rating dropped to 40%, it didn’t take too long for someone to step forward with the “blame whitey” meme.  Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University, recently wrote an article for The Nation, wherein she blamed racism for Obama’s declining popularity:

The 2012 election may be a test of another form of electoral racism:  the tendency of white liberals to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts.  If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

*   *   *

President Obama has experienced a swift and steep decline in support among white Americans – from 61 percent in 2009 to 33 percent now.  I believe much of that decline can be attributed to their disappointment that choosing a black man for president did not prove to be salvific for them or the nation.  His record is, at the very least, comparable to that of President Clinton, who was enthusiastically re-elected.  The 2012 election is a test of whether Obama will be held to standards never before imposed on an incumbent.  If he is, it may be possible to read that result as the triumph of a more subtle form of racism.

Despite the fact that Obama has yet to lose the 2012 election, Professor Harris-Perry has already seen fit to assemble a “circular firing squad” to assign blame for the Obama campaign’s inevitable failure.  Her theory about racism drew quick fire from more-intelligent commentators, who exposed the absurdity of her claim.  Corey Robin, who earned a PhD in Political Science from Yale, did a thorough job of debunking Professor Harris-Perry’s claim.  Among the points made by Dr. Robin, was this:

In fact, according to this September Washington Post story, “Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held ‘strongly favorable’ views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent.”  That’s why, according to this piece, Obama has made special outreach efforts to blacks:  he’s worried about their dwindling support.  But as the Post also goes onto explain, “That drop is similar to slipping support for Obama among all groups.”

The most important point made by Corey Robin was his focus on the overarching problem of Obama’s politics:

But when we assess Obama, like any other president, we’re not thinking about his skills and talents; we’re thinking about what we call his “politics” and, even more important, how his politics reflect larger forces and structures in American society: corporate power, neoliberal ideology, declining organizational capacity on the left, and so on.  We see him, often, as a symptom of those forces, not a challenge to them.  Not, again, because of any lack of intelligence or ability on his part, but because, in part, he is a product of the structure (with all its failings) we would like to see dismantled.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism ripped Professor Harris-Perry’s article to shreds.  Ms. Smith concluded her essay by placing blame back on the man himself:

It took most people far too long to get that Obama was a phony because the presumption that a black man would be sympathetic to the fate of the downtrodden is a deeply embedded but never voiced prejudice (and this bias is exploited successfully by the right in depicting Obama as a socialist).

*   *   *

These traditional iconic symbols of liberalism – secular urban elitism, blackness, technocratic skill, micro-issue identity based political organizing groups – have been fully subverted in the service of banking interests.  Obama is the ultimate, but not the only, piece of evidence that these symbols are now used simply to con the Democratic base out of their support and money.  The task of moving forward will require rebuilding the symbolic vocabulary of the defenders of the middle class.

Melissa Harris-Perry is forgetting that Barack Obama is only half  black.  In fact, many of us are blaming Obama’s white half for breaking so many campaign promises and for his selling out to the plutocracy.


 

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Betting Against Obama

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Most Congressional Democrats and supporters of President Obama are anxious to see an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  Nevertheless, as of this writing, the President has yet to even vote “present” on this issue.  Obama’s waffling throughout the tax cut debate has once again exposed his weak leadership skills, which are never overlooked by the people at Fox News:

“The players on the field want a game plan,” said one senior Democratic congressional aide who requested anonymity to be candid about caucus sentiment. “There’s an increasing frustration from members that there is not a plan … There is just tremendous frustration.  I mean, where are they?”

The aide noted that Senate Democrats, meeting behind closed doors Wednesday and most likely Thursday, intend to discuss the tax cuts, but there is one notable absence.

“Where is the White House?  There’s no one here talking to us today or tomorrow,” the aide fumed   .   .   .

*   *   *

Democrats are waiting for an express statement from the President, despite the fact that Obama opened the window on a temporary extension just after the midterm elections.

“We should have done this already.  Our bosses go home and are hounded about this.  I don’t get it.  Just extend the cuts for a few years and be done with it.  There are way too many fingers in the wind on this from both sides (of the aisle),” another senior Democratic aide involved in tax policy for years told Fox.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, began a recent blog posting with this observation:

The President says a Republican proposal to extend the Bush tax cuts to everyone for two years is a “basis for conversation.”  I hope this doesn’t mean another Obama cave-in.

Unfortunately, in all likelihood it does mean “another Obama cave-in”  — and it probably won’t be the last.  Professor Reich ended that piece with this rhetorical question:

If the President can’t or won’t take a stand now — when he still has a chance to prevail in the upcoming lame-duck Congress — when will he ever?

Answer:  Never (unless it means taking a stand – once again – in support of the Wall Street banks).

In the mean time, while Obama dithers, a group of 40 “Patriotic Millionaires” has stepped forward after writing a letter to the President, in which they urged him not to renew the Bush tax cuts for anyone earning more than $1 million a year.  Joe Conason included the text of that letter in a recent piece for Salon.  The Patriotic Millionaires expressed an opinion, which the President apparently fears might not be shared by his top campaign contributors:

We have done very well over the last several years.  Now, during our nation’s moment of need, we are eager to do our fair share.  We don’t need more tax cuts, and we understand that cutting our taxes will increase the deficit and the debt burden carried by other taxpayers.  The country needs to meet its financial obligations in a just and responsible way.

A similar stance was taken by billionaire financier Warren Buffet, during an interview conducted by Christiane Amanpour on the ABC News program This Week.  When confronted by Amanpour about the claim that those tax cuts for the very wealthy are what energize business and capitalism, Buffet gave this response:

“The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you.  But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on,” Buffett explained.

Writing for The Hill, Alexander Bolton discussed the frustrations experienced by Congressional Democrats, who are often left twisting in the wind while the President works out a strategy for traveling up a fork in the road:

Senate Democrats want President Obama to take a more hands-on role in legislative battles next year, when Republicans will have additional clout on Capitol Hill.

Democratic lawmakers say Obama could have done more to connect his legislative agenda to the concerns of voters — a shortcoming the president himself has admitted.

As the moment approaches for 2012 Presidential aspirants to declare their candidacy, Mr. Obama’s shortcomings are widely understood.  If the Democrats want to hold the White House, somebody with some guts should step forward pretty soon.


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Getting It Reich

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April 8, 2010

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton, has been hitting more than a few home runs lately.   At a time when too many commentators remain in lock-step with their favorite political party, Reich pulls no punches when pointing out the flaws in the Obama administration’s agenda.  I particularly enjoyed his reaction to the performance of Larry Summers on ABC television’s This Week on April 4:

I’m in the “green room” at ABC News, waiting to join a roundtable panel discussion on ABC’s weekly Sunday news program, This Week.

*   *   *

Larry Summers was interviewed just before Greenspan. He said the economy is expanding, that the Administration is doing everything it can to bring jobs back, and that the regulatory reform bills moving on the Hill will prevent another financial crisis.

What?

*   *   *

If any three people are most responsible for the failure of financial regulation, they are Greenspan, Larry Summers, and my former colleague, Bob Rubin.

*   *   *

I dislike singling out individuals for blame or praise in a political system as complex as that of the United States but I worry the nation is not on the right economic road, and that these individuals — one of whom advises the President directly and the others who continue to exert substantial influence among policy makers — still don’t get it.

The direction financial reform is taking is not encouraging.  Both the bill that emerged from the House and the one emerging from the Senate are filled with loopholes that continue to allow reckless trading of derivatives.  Neither bill adequately prevents banks from becoming insolvent because of their reckless trades.  Neither limits the size of banks or busts up the big ones.  Neither resurrects the Glass-Steagall Act. Neither adequately regulates hedge funds.

More fundamentally, neither bill begins to rectify the basic distortion in the national economy whose rewards and incentives are grotesquely tipped toward Wall Street and financial entrepreneurialism, and away from Main Street and real entrepreneurialism.

Is it because our elected officials just don’t understand what needs to be done to prevent another repeat of the financial crisis – or is the unwillingness to take preventative action the result of pressure from lobbyists?  I think they’re just playing dumb while they line their pockets with all of that legalized graft. Meanwhile, Professor Reich continued to function as the only adult in the room, with this follow-up piece:

Needless to say, the danger of an even bigger cost in coming years continues to grow because we still don’t have a new law to prevent what happened from happening again.  In fact, now that they know for sure they’ll be bailed out, Wall Street banks – and those who lend to them or invest in them – have every incentive to take even bigger risks.  In effect, taxpayers are implicitly subsidizing them to do so.

*   *   *

But the only way to make sure no bank it too big to fail is to make sure no bank is too big.  If Congress and the White House fail to do this, you have every reason to believe it’s because Wall Street has paid them not to.

Reich’s recent criticism of the Federal Reserve was another sorely-needed antidote to Ben Bernanke’s recent rise to media-designated sainthood.  In an essay quoting Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Reich transcended the polarized political climate to focus on the fact that the mysterious Fed enjoys inappropriate authority:

The Fed has finally came clean.  It now admits it bailed out Bear Stearns – taking on tens of billions of dollars of the bank’s bad loans – in order to smooth Bear Stearns’ takeover by JP Morgan Chase.  The secret Fed bailout came months before Congress authorized the government to spend up to $700 billion of taxpayer dollars bailing out the banks, even months before Lehman Brothers collapsed.  The Fed also took on billions of dollars worth of AIG securities, also before the official government-sanctioned bailout.

The losses from those deals still total tens of billions, and taxpayers are ultimately on the hook.  But the public never knew.  There was no congressional oversight.  It was all done behind closed doors. And the New York Fed – then run by Tim Geithner – was very much in the center of the action.

*   *   *

The Fed has a big problem.  It acts in secret.  That makes it an odd duck in a democracy.  As long as it’s merely setting interest rates, its secrecy and political independence can be justified. But once it departs from that role and begins putting billions of dollars of taxpayer money at risk — choosing winners and losers in the capitalist system — its legitimacy is questionable.

You probably thought that Ron Paul was the only one who spoke that way about the Federal Reserve.  Fortunately, when people such as Robert Reich speak out concerning the huge economic and financial dysfunction afflicting America, there is a greater likelihood that those with the authority to implement the necessary reforms will do the right thing.  We can only hope.



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Kill The Whales

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October 8, 2009

Those whales are back in the news again — this time due to calls for their slaughter.  In case you’re wondering what kind of person would advocate the killing of whales, I would like to identify two people who recently spoke out in favor of such action.  The first of these individuals is one of my favorite columnists at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her “trenchant and incisive” coverage of Wall Street.  The second is the chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Sheila Bair.  Two women want to have whales killed?  Yes.  However, the “whales” in question are those infamous financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  On October 3, Gretchen Morgenson wrote a piece for The New York Times, entitled:  “The Cost of Saving These Whales” in which she defined “to big to fail” institutions as “banks that are so big and interconnected that their very existence threatens the world”.   She discussed the problems caused by the continued existence of those whales with this explanation:

During the credit bust, our leaders embraced the too-big-to-fail policy, reluctantly bailing out large institutions to save the system from collapse, they said.  Yet even as the crisis has abated, these policy makers have shown little interest in cutting financial monsters down to size.  This is especially disturbing given that some institutions have grown even larger as a result of the mess.

It is perverse, of course, to reward big banks’ mistakes with bailouts financed by beleaguered taxpayers.  But the too-big-to-fail doctrine benefits the banks in other ways as well:  the implication that an institution will not be allowed to fall gives it significant cost advantages over smaller, perhaps more responsible competitors.

On October 4, Sheila Bair of the FDIC gave a speech before the International Institute of Finance at their annual meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.  At the outset, she pointed out that “the first task” in creating “a more resilient, transparent, and better-regulated financial system” would be to scrap the “too big to fail” doctrine.  She went on to explain how to go about killing those whales:

To do this we need a resolution regime that provides for the orderly wind-down of banking and other financial enterprises without imposing costs on the taxpayers.

The solution must involve a practical and effective mechanism for the orderly resolution of these institutions similar to that used for FDIC-insured banks.

This new regime would not permit taxpayer funds to be used to prop up a firm or its management.  Instead, senior management would be replaced, and losses would be borne by the stockholders and creditors.

On September 23, 2009 Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner testified before the House Financial Services Committee to explain his planned financial reform agenda.  Here’s what Turbo Tim had to say about the plan for dealing with the “too big to fail” problem:

First, we cannot allow firms to reap the benefits of explicit or implicit government subsidies without very strong government oversight.  We must substantially reduce the moral hazard created by the perception that these subsidies exist; address their corrosive effects on market discipline; and minimize their encouragement of risk-taking.

So, in other words … the government subsidies to these institutions will continue, but only if the recipients get “very strong government oversight”.  In his next sentence Geithner expressed his belief that the moral hazard was created “by the perception that these subsidies exist” rather than the FACT that they exist.  Geithner’s scheme of continued corporate welfare for the biggest financial institutions is consistent with what we learned about him from Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson in their New York Times article back on April 26.  That essay gave us some great insight about Turbo Tim’s blindness to moral hazard:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

And more often than not, Mr. Geithner has been a leading architect of those bailouts, the activist at the head of the pack.  He was the federal regulator most willing to “push the envelope,” said H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent Wall Street lawyer who spoke frequently with Mr. Geithner.

Geithner’s objective of putting the prosperity of the banks ahead of any concern for the taxpayers was again demonstrated in this AFP report from October 6:

On proposed changes to the financial system, Geithner said it was “legitimate” for banks to be influential and admitted that reform could “pose risks to financial innovation.”

Nevertheless, he stressed that “the most important issue is that if stability (of financial institutions) is not guaranteed, it will become harder to raise capital.”

On October 6, Newsweek published an interview conducted by Nancy Cook with William Black, a former federal regulator during the Savings & Loan crisis and a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.  The interview included a discussion of the government’s response to the financial crisis.  One remark made by Mr. Black reinforced my opinion about Turbo Tim:

“Some of the things Bernanke did were very bad, but he is in sharp contrast to Geithner who has been wrong about everything in his career.  When Geithner was once answering a question in response to Ron Paul, he said, ‘I’ve never been a regulator.’  He was then the President of the New York Federal Reserve, and he purports that he was never a regulator?  That is a demonstration of what is wrong with the Federal Reserve banks if the head of the unit doesn’t think he’s a regulator.  He’s a disaster.”

It should come as no surprise that Richard Carnell, a Professor at Fordham Law School and former Assistant Treasury Secretary for President Clinton, would have this to say about Geithner’s financial reform agenda, when asked for his comments by Kim Thai of Fortune:

The plan includes useful reforms.  But it’s also naive, timid, misguided, politically inept, and intellectually dishonest.

It places naive faith in regulation.  Yet regulation failed disastrously over the past decade.  Bank regulators had ample powers to keep banks safe but did too little, too late.  They let banks use $12-13 in borrowed money for every $1 in shareholders’ money.  The administration’s response?  Give regulators more powers.

[The plan] preserves a preposterous tangle of overlapping regulators.  And it didn’t arrive until June, seven months after the election.  By then the crisis had faded and special interest politics had come roaring back.

It entrenches bailouts for large financial institutions.  Voters know that’s rotten policy.  It makes firms like General Electric divest their banks.  That serves no purpose.  It’s like trying to ward off the Mexican Mafia by fortifying the Canadian border.  Small wonder voters remain skeptical.

It appears as though Turbo Tim is not up to the job of killing those whales.  Perhaps the President should find someone who is.



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