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Our Sham Two-Party System

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It’s becoming more obvious to people that our so-called, “two-party system” is really a just a one-party system.  Last summer, I discussed how the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party is determined to steal the money American workers have paid into the Social Security program.  While we’re on the subject, let’s take a look at an inconvenient law which the Beltway Vultures choose to ignore:

EXCLUSION OF SOCIAL SECURITY FROM ALL BUDGETS Pub. L. 101-508, title XIII, Sec. 13301(a), Nov. 5, 1990, 104 Stat. 1388-623, provided that:  Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the receipts and disbursements of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund shall not be counted as new budget authority, outlays, receipts, or deficit or surplus for purposes of – (1) the budget of the United States Government as submitted by the President, (2) the congressional budget, or (3) the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.

In a recent interview conducted by Anastasia Churkina of Russia Today, investigative reporter and author, Matt Taibbi described the American political system as a “reality show sponsored by Wall Street”.  Taibbi pointed out that “… the problem is Wall Street heavily sponsors both the Republican and the Democratic Parties” so that whoever gets elected President “is going to be a creature of Wall Street”.  After noting that Goldman Sachs was Obama’s number one source of private campaign contributions during the 2008 election cycle, Taibbi faced a question about the possibility that a third party could become a significant factor in American politics.  His response was:  “Seriously, I don’t see it.”  Taibbi went on to express his belief that the “average American” is:

… seduced and mesmerized by this phony, media-created, division between blue and red – and left and right, Democrats and Republicans, and people are conditioned to believe that there are enormous, profound differences between these two parties.  Whereas, the reality is:  their differences are mostly superficial and on the important questions of how the economy is run and how to regulate the economy – they’re exactly the same – but I don’t think ordinary people know that.

At this point, the question is whether there can be any hope that “ordinary people” will ever realize that our “two-party system” is actually a farce.

The type of disappointment expressed by Matt Taibbi in his discussion of Barack Obama during the Russia Today interview, has become a familiar subject.  I was motivated to characterize the new President as “Disappointer-In-Chief” during his third month in office.  An increasing number of commentators have begun to admit that Hillary Clinton’s campaign-theme question, “Who is Barack Obama?” was never really answered until after the man took office.  One person who got an answer “the hard way” was Professor Cornel West of Princeton University.

In a recent article for Truthdig, Chris Hedges discussed how Professor West made 65 appearances for Candidate Obama on the campaign trail.  Nevertheless, Professor West never received an invitation to Obama’s Inaugural.  Although he traveled to Washington for that historic occasion, Professor West ended up watching the event on a hotel room television with his family.  As an adversary of Obama’s financial mentor, Larry Summers, Professor West quickly found himself thrown under the bus.

The following passage from Chris Hedges’ article presents an interesting narrative by Professor West about what I have previously described as Obama’s own “Tora Bora moment” (when the President “punted” on the economic stimulus bill).  Professor West also lamented the failure of the Democrats to provide any alternative to the bipartisan tradition of crony corporatism:

“Can you imagine if Barack Obama had taken office and deliberately educated and taught the American people about the nature of the financial catastrophe and what greed was really taking place?” West asks.  “If he had told us what kind of mechanisms of accountability needed to be in place, if he had focused on homeowners rather than investment banks for bailouts and engaged in massive job creation he could have nipped in the bud the right-wing populism of the tea party folk. The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt.  It is corrupt.  Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.

“We have got to attempt to tell the truth, and that truth is painful,” he says.  “It is a truth that is against the thick lies of the mainstream.  In telling that truth we become so maladjusted to the prevailing injustice that the Democratic Party, more and more, is not just milquetoast and spineless, as it was before, but thoroughly complicitous with some of the worst things in the American empire.  I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama.  If it turns out in the end that we have a crypto-fascist movement and the only thing standing between us and fascism is Barack Obama, then we have to put our foot on the brake.  But we’ve got to think seriously of third-party candidates, third formations, third parties.

When one considers the vast number of disillusioned Obama supporters along with the number of people expressing their disappointment with the Republican field of Presidential hopefuls, the idea that 2012 could be the year when a third-party candidate makes it to the White House doesn’t seem so far-fetched.


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Understanding The Creepy Bailouts

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March 26, 2009

The voting, taxpaying public had no trouble understanding the outrageousness of AIG’s use of government-supplied, bailout money to pay $165 million in bonuses to its employees.  As we all saw, there was a non-stop chorus of outrage, running from letters to the editors of small-town newspapers to death threats against AIG employees and their next-of-kin.  However, what most people don’t really understand is how this crisis came about and what the failed solutions have been.  Some of us have tried to familiarize ourselves with the alphabet soup of acronyms for those government-created entities, entrusted with the task of solving the most complex financial problems of all time.  Nevertheless, we are behind the curve with our own understanding and we will remain behind the curve regardless of how hard we try.  It’s no accident.  Opacity is the order of the day from the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  In other words:  You (the “little people”) are not supposed to know what is going on.  So just go back to work, pay your taxes and watch the television shows that are intended to tie-up your brain cells and dumb you down.

This week, Wall Street was excited to learn the details of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s latest version of what, last week, was called the Financial Stability Plan.  In order to make the unpopular plan sound different, it was given a new name: the PPIP (Public-Private Investment Partnership or “pee-pip”).  Those economists who had voiced skepticism about the plan’s earlier incarnations were not impressed with the emperor’s new clothes.  As Nobel laureate and Princeton University Professor Paul Krugman explained in The New York Times:

But the real problem with this plan is that it won’t work.  Yes, troubled assets may be somewhat undervalued.  But the fact is that financial executives literally bet their banks on the belief that there was no housing bubble, and the related belief that unprecedented levels of household debt were no problem.  They lost that bet.  And no amount of financial hocus-pocus — for that is what the Geithner plan amounts to — will change that fact.

The plan’s supporters now claim that Professor Nouriel Roubini, an advocate for “nationalization” (or more accurately:  temporary receivership) of insolvent banks now supports the “new” plan.  As one can discern from the New York Daily News op-ed piece by Dr. Roubini and fellow New York University Professor Matthew Richardson, they simply described this plan a “a step in the right direction”.  More important were the caveats they included in their article:

But let’s not have any illusions.  The government bears the risk if and when the investors take a bath on the taxpayer-provided loans.  If the economy gets worse, it could get very ugly, very quickly.  The administration should be transparent in making clear that there is still a wealth transfer taking place here – from taxpayers to investors and banks.

*    *    *

Moreover, there’s the issue of transparency – or lack thereof.  No one knows what the loans or securities are worth.  Competing investors will help solve this by promoting price discovery.  But be careful what you wish for.  We might not like the answers.

James K. Galbraith (the son of famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith) has a PhD in Economics from Yale and is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.  His reaction to the PPIP appears on The Daily Beast website in an article entitled:  “The Geithner Plan Won’t Work”:

The ultimate objective, and in President Obama’s own words, the test of this plan, is whether it will “get credit flowing again.”  (I have dealt with that elsewhere.)  Short answer:  It won’t.  Once rescued, banks will sit quietly on the sidelines, biding their time, until borrowers start to reappear.  From 1989 to 1994, that took five years.  From 1929 to 1935 — you get the picture.

*    *    *

And the reality is, if the subprime securities are truly trash, most of the big banks are troubled and some are insolvent.  The FDIC should put them through receivership, get clean audits, install new management, and begin the necessary shrinkage of the banking system with the big guys, not the small ones.  It should not encumber the banking system we need with failed institutions.  And it should not be giving CPR to a market for toxic mortgages that never should have been issued, and certainly never securitized, in the first place.

Back in May of 2006, Dr. Galbraith wrote an article for Mother Jones that is particularly relevant to the current economic crisis.  Many commentators are now quoting Galbraith’s observations about how “the predator class” is in the process of crushing the rest of us:

Today, the signature of modern American capitalism is neither benign competition, nor class struggle, nor an inclusive middle-class utopia.  Instead, predation has become the dominant feature — a system wherein the rich have come to feast on decaying systems built for the middle class.  The predatory class is not the whole of the wealthy; it may be opposed by many others of similar wealth.  But it is the defining feature, the leading force.  And its agents are in full control of the government under which we live.

The validity of Galbraith’s argument becomes apparent after reading Matt Taibbi’s recent article for Rolling Stone, called “The Big Takeover”.  Taibbi’s article is a “must read” for anyone attempting to get an understanding of how this mess came about as well as the sinister maneuvers that were made after la mierda hit the fan.  It’s not a pretty picture and Matt deserves more than congratulations for his hard work on this project, putting the arcane financial concepts and terminology into plain, easy-to-understand English.  Beyond that, he provides the Big Picture, which, for those who read Galbraith’s discourse on predation, is all too familiar:

People are pissed off about this financial crisis, and about this bailout, but they’re not pissed off enough.  The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d’etat.  They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.

The crisis was the coup de grace:  Given virtually free rein over the economy, these same insiders first wrecked the financial world, then cunningly granted themselves nearly unlimited emergency powers to clean up their own mess.  And so the gambling-addict leaders of companies like AIG end up not penniless and in jail, but with an Alien-style death grip on the Treasury and the Federal Reserve — “our partners in the government,” as Liddy put it with a shockingly casual matter-of-factness after the most recent bailout.

The mistake most people make in looking at the financial crisis is thinking of it in terms of money, a habit that might lead you to look at the unfolding mess as a huge bonus-killing downer for the Wall Street class.  But if you look at it in purely Machiavellian terms, what you see is a colossal power grab that threatens to turn the federal government into a kind of giant Enron — a huge, impenetrable black box filled with self-dealing insiders whose scheme is the securing of individual profits at the expense of an ocean of unwitting involuntary shareholders, previously known as taxpayers.

Let’s hope I haven’t scared you out of reading Matt’s article.  Besides:  If you don’t — you are going to feel really stupid when you have to admit that you don’t know what the ABCPMMMFLF is.

McCain Loses His Chance

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October 2, 2008

It was the opportunity for a “game-changing move” in the 2008 Presidential campaign.  Just as John McCain was dropping back in the polls, providing Barack Obama the chance to “close the deal” even more decisively than he did with Hillary Clinton, McCain missed the opportunity to turn the game around.  Last week, he arrived in Washington (after the pseudo-suspension of his campaign) on a mission to save us all from the crisis declared by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.  After McCain arrived, he found a number of both Republican and Democratic members of the House of Representatives opposed to the revised, 110-page, economic “bailout bill” (the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008).  At that point in time, McCain had the opportunity to break with the unpopular Bush Administration and band together with the 133 Republican and 95 Democratic House members (who eventually voted against the bill) to form a “coalition of mavericks” (oxymoron, non-sequitur or both?) resisting this bailout of the big banks and other “fat cats” on Wall Street.  He didn’t.  He chose instead, to copy whatever Barack Obama was doing.  Besides, his move dovetailed well with the pseudo-“bipartisan” duet he had been playing, throughout the entire campaign, with Joe “The Tool” Lieberman.  Had McCain stood with those 133 young Republican members of the House and the 95 Democrats (many of whom consider themselves conservative, “Blue Dog” Democrats) he could have re-ignited his flatulent campaign.  (Is it really safe to do that?  —  Let’s ask Johnny Knoxville.)

Howard Fineman provided an interesting retrospective of this phase in the evolution the economic “bailout bill” at the Newsweek website on September 30:

The Paulson Plan is not great. Some two hundred academic economists have ridiculed it, and so have the House Republicans, by a 2-1 margin.  Public opinion (and not just the angry phone callers) is turning against the measure—to the extent that anybody understands it.

But the consensus is that Washington has to do something, and that the current version is far better than what the lawmakers started with.

McCain made a show of returning to Washington to try to jam the original measure through.  He deserves credit for the instinct. An old Navy motto is: Don’t just stand there, DO something!  That is McCain to the core, and so much the better for it.

But when he got to town, he realized something that no one had bothered to tell him, apparently:  the grassroots of his own party (the grassroots that has never really trusted him) hated the Paulson Plan.  They weren’t about to support it and risk their own necks.  McCain worked the phones, but fell back in the ranks.

When the second revision of this bill (at over 400 pages) finally made it to the Senate floor for the vote on Wednesday, October 1, there were 9 Democrats, 15 Republicans and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, voting against it.  McCain again missed the opportunity for a truly bipartisan resistance to this measure.  Such an act would have demonstrated genuine leadership.  He could have rejoined his old buddy, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, as well as Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and rising Democratic star, Maria Cantwell from the State of Washington, all of whom voted against this measure.  Such a move would have emboldened resistance to the “bailout bill” in the House of Representatives, where the term of office lasts only two years.  (The short term results in greater accountability to American voters, who are believed to have notoriously short memory spans.)

Is this bill really necessary?  On the October 1 edition of MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Paul Krugman, Economics Professor at Princeton University, admitted that:

…  it will be relatively ineffective, although rejecting it will cause a big run on the system.  Then we will come back and do it right in January or February  …

When Keith Olbermann asked Krugman about the likelihood that nothing consequential would happen if this bill did not pass, Krugman responded by saying that such possibilities have “shrunk in the past week”.  Krugman went on to claim that “the credit crunch has started to hit Main Street”, using, as an example, the rumor that: “McDonald’s has started to cut credit to its franchisees.”  McDonald’s has issued a press release stating that this was not the case.  What is really happening is that the banks are acting like spoiled children, holding their breath until the government gives them what they want, using the threat of unavailable credit as a gun to the head of Congress.

Public opposition to this bailout was best summed up by Peggy Noonan, when she appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on October 1:

But we are in a real economic crisis and the American political establishment said we must do A, B and C to deal with it and the American people  …  said:  “No.  We don’t trust you to handle this.  We don’t trust you to do the right thing.”

John McCain had the opportunity to stand with those people, as well as the 133 House Republicans and 15 Senate Republicans, to do “the right thing”.  He decided to forego that opportunity.  Barack Obama said, on the Senate floor Wednesday, that it was not worth risking the American economy and the world economy by challenging this bill.  John McCain decided that it was not worth risking his Presidential campaign on such a challenge.  That’s too bad for him.  The gamble probably would have paid off.

Will It Work?

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September 29, 2008

This is the question on everyone’s mind as they ponder the new “bailout bill”, officially known as the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.  It is available for everyone to read on the Internet (all 110 pages of it), but most people are looking for answers to the most important questions:  Will it pass and will it work?

Just after midnight on Monday morning, David Rogers, of Politico.com, reported that the bill (which goes to the House floor on Monday and the Senate floor on Wednesday) was still facing resistance from both the right and the left, despite the support voiced by both Presidential candidates.  Republican Congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut was quoted in the article as saying that:  “For this to pass, a lot of people are going to have to change their minds”.  The following passage provided more light on the view of this bill from those House Republicans providing resistance to the measure:

Yet a closed-door party meeting Sunday night illustrated all the problems anew.  The session ran for hours, and while Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he would vote for the bill, he could not predict the number of votes he would have for it, and he famously referred to the measure as a “crap sandwich” before his rank and file.

Jackie Kucinich reported for TheHill.com that earlier in the day, Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana had sent out a letter to his fellow Republicans in opposition to this bill:

The decision to give the federal government the ability to nationalize almost every bad mortgage in America interrupts this basic truth of our free market economy …  Republicans improved this bill but it remains the largest corporate bailout in American history, forever changes the relationship between government and the financial sector, and passes the cost along to the American people.  I cannot support it.

The opposition to the bill from the Democratic side was discussed in another Politico.com article:  this one by Ryan Grimm.  Grimm’s article discussed an “intense” Democratic Caucus meeting.  He quoted Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar as describing resistance to the bill coming from across the complete spectrum of Democratic opinion, from liberal to conservative.  California Congressman Brad Sherman had met with Republican Darrell Issa before the meeting.  Sherman’s contribution to the Caucus discussion was described this way by Ryan Grimm:

Sherman spoke out against the bill during the caucus meeting, arguing that billions of dollars would flow to foreign investors, that oversight was lax and that limits on executive compensation were too weak.   Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) said he was leaning toward a no vote, too.

The House vote on the bill is scheduled to take place after a four-hour debate, beginning at 8 a.m. on Monday.

Whether or not this bill will ultimately “work” is another question.  Paul Krugman, Economics Professor at Princeton University, wrote in the Sunday New York Times:

The bailout plan released yesterday is a lot better than the proposal Henry Paulson first put out — sufficiently so to be worth passing.  But it’s not what you’d actually call a good plan, and it won’t end the crisis.  The odds are that the next president will have to deal with some major financial emergencies.

Steve Lohr’s report from the Sunday New York Times, discussed the outlook for this plan, as voiced by Robert E. Hall, an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative research group at Stanford.  Lohr observed:

There was no assurance that the bailout plan would work as intended to ease financial turmoil and economic uncertainty.

Lohr’s article then focused on the opinion of Nouriel Roubini, an economist at the Stern School of Business at New York University:

The $350 billion to $400 billion in bad credit reported by the banks so far could eventually exceed $1.5 trillion, he estimated, as banks are forced to write off more bad loans, not only on more housing-related debt, but also for corporate lending, consumer loans, credit cards and student loans.

The rescue package, if successful, would make the recognition of losses and the inevitable winnowing of the banking system more an orderly retreat than a collapse. Yet that pruning of the banking industry must take place, economists say, and it is the government’s role to move it along instead of coddling the banks if the financial system is going to return to health.

A more unpleasant perspective appeared in an editorial published in the September 25 edition of The Economist:

If the economics of Mr Paulson’s plan are broadly correct, the politics are fiendish.  You are lavishing money on the people who got you into this mess. Sensible intervention cannot even buy long-term relief:  the plan cannot stop house prices falling and the bloated financial sector shrinking. Although the economic risk is that the plan fails, the political risk is that the plan succeeds.  Voters will scarcely notice a depression that never happened.  But even as they lose their houses and their jobs, they will see Wall Street once again making millions.

Whatever your definition of “success” might be for this plan, the experts agree that things aren’t going to return to “normal” for a long time, if ever.