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Elizabeth Warren To The Rescue

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March 4, 2010

We reached the point where serious financial reform began to look like a lost cause.  Nothing has been done to address the problems that caused the financial crisis.  Economists have been warning that we could be facing another financial crisis, requiring another round of bank bailouts.  The watered-down financial reform bill passed by the House of Representatives, HR 4173, is about to become completely defanged by the Senate.

The most hotly-contested aspect of the proposed financial reform bill — the establishment of an independent, stand-alone, Consumer Financial Protection Agency — is now in the hands of “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, who is being forced into retirement because the people of Connecticut are fed up with him.  As a result, this is his last chance to get some more “perks” from his position as Senate Banking Committee chairman.  Back on January 18, Elizabeth Warren (Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel and the person likely to be appointed to head the CFPA) explained to Reuters that banking lobbyists might succeed in “gutting” the proposed agency:

“The CFPA is the best indicator of whether Congress will reform Wall Street or whether it will continue to give Wall Street whatever it wants,” she told Reuters in an interview.

*   *   *

Consumer protection is relatively simple and could easily be fixed, she said.  The statutes, for the most part, already exist, but enforcement is in the hands of the wrong people, such as the Federal Reserve, which does not consider it central to its main task of maintaining economic stability, she said.

The latest effort to sabotage the proposed CFPA involves placing it under the control of the Federal Reserve.  As Craig Torres and Yalman Onaran explained for Bloomberg News:

Putting it inside the Fed, instead of creating a standalone bureau, was a compromise proposed by Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat.

*   *   *

Banking lobbyists say the Fed’s knowledge of the banking system makes it well-suited to coordinate rules on credit cards and other consumer financial products.

*   *   *

The financial-services industry has lobbied lawmakers to defeat the plan for a consumer agency.  JP Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon called the agency “just a whole new bureaucracy” on a December conference call with analysts.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation, recently discussed the importance of having an independent CFPA:

Currently, there are several proposals floating around to change the basic concept of a consumer protection agency.  For the most part, these proposals are meaningless, watered down foolishness, bordering on idiotic.  Let the Fed do it? They were already charged with doing this, and under Greenspan, committed Nonfeasance — they failed to do their duty.

The Fed is the wrong agency for this.

In an interview with Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post, Congressman Barney Frank expressed a noteworthy reaction to the idea:

“It’s like making me the chief judge of the Miss America contest,” Frank said.

On Tuesday, March 2, Elizabeth Warren spent the day on the phone with reform advocates, members of Congress and administration officials, as she explained in an interview with Shahien Nasiripour of The Huffington Post.  The key point she stressed in that interview was the message:  “Pass a strong bill or nothing at all.”  It sounds as though she is afraid that the financial reform bill could suffer the same fate as the healthcare reform bill.  That notion was reinforced by the following comments:

My first choice is a strong consumer agency  . . .  My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.

*   *   *

“The lobbyists would like nothing better than for the story to be the [proposed] agency has died and everyone has given up,” Warren said.  “The lobbyists’ closest friends in the Senate would like nothing better than passing an agency that has a good name but no real impact so they have something good to say to the voters — and something even better to say to the lobbyists.”

Congratulations, Professor Warren!  At last, someone with some cajones is taking charge of this fight!

On Wednesday, March 3, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration was getting involved in the financial reform negotiations, with Treasury Secretary Geithner leading the charge for an independent Consumer Financial Protection agency.  I suspect that President Obama must have seen the “Ex-Presidents” sketch from the FunnyOrDie.com website, featuring the actors from Saturday Night Live portraying former Presidents (and ghosts of ex-Presidents) in a joint effort toward motivating Obama to make sure the CFPA becomes a reality.  When Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase reunited, joining Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell and Darryl Hammond in promoting this cause, Obama could not have turned them down.



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Awareness Abounds

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November 12, 2009

When I started this blog in April of 2008, my focus was on that year’s political campaigns and the exciting Presidential primary season.  At the time, I expressed my concern that the most prominent centrist in the race, John McCain, would continue pandering to the televangelist lobby after winning the nomination, when those efforts were no longer necessary.  He unfortunately followed that strategy and went on to say dumb things about the most pressing issue facing America in decades: the economy.  During the Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, James Carville was credited with writing this statement on a sign in front of Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock:  “It’s the economy, stupid!”  That phrase quickly became the mantra of most politicians until the attacks of September 11, 2001 revealed that our efforts at national security were inadequate.  Since that time, we have over-compensated in that area.  Nevertheless, with the demise of Rudy Giuliani’s political career, the American public is not as jumpy about terrorism as it had been — despite the suspicious connections of the deranged psychiatrist at Fort Hood.  As the recent editorials by Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune and Vincent Carroll of The Denver Post demonstrate, the cerebral bat guano necessary to get the public fired-up for a vindictive rampage just isn’t there anymore.

President Obama’s failure to abide by the Carville maxim appears to be costing him points in the latest approval ratings.  The fact that the new President has surrounded himself with the same characters who helped create the financial crisis, has become a subject of criticism by commentators from across the political spectrum.  Since Obama’s Presidential campaign received nearly one million dollars in contributions from Goldman Sachs, he should have known we’d be watching.  CNBC’s Charlie Gasparino was recently interviewed by Aaron Task.  During that discussion, Gasparino explained that Jamie Dimon (the CEO of JP Morgan Chase and director of the New York Federal Reserve) has managed to dissuade the new President from paying serious attention to Paul Volcker (chairman of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board) whose ideas for financial reform would prove inconvenient for those “too big to fail” financial institutions.  As long as JP Morgan’s “Dimon Dog” and Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs have such firm control over the puppet strings of “Turbo” Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke, why pay attention to Paul Volcker?  The voting public (as well as most politicians) can’t understand most of these economic problems, anyway.  I seriously doubt that many of our elected officials could explain the difference between a credit default swap and a wife swap.

Once again, Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com has directed a water cannon of common sense on the malaise blaze that has been fueled by a plague of ignorance.  In his latest piece, Gerstein tossed aside that tattered, obsolete handbook referred to as “conventional wisdom” to take a hard look at the reality facing all incumbent, national politicians:

It’s the stupidity about the economy in Washington and on Wall Street that’s driving most voters berserk.  Indeed, the financial system is still out of whack and tens of millions of people are (or fear they soon could be) out of work, yet every day our political and economic leaders say and do knuckleheaded things that show they are unfailingly and imperviously out of touch with those realities.

Gerstein’s short essay is essential reading for a quick understanding of how and why America can’t seem to solve many of its pressing problems these days.  Gerstein has identified the responsible culprits as three groups:  the Democrats, the Republicans and the big banks — describing them as the “axis of cluelessness”:

We have gone long past “they don’t get it” territory.  It’s now unavoidably clear that they won’t get it — and we won’t get the responsible leadership and honest capitalism we want–until (as I have suggested before) we demand it.

Surprisingly, public awareness concerning the root cause of both the financial crisis and our ongoing economic predicament has escalated to a startling degree in recent weeks.  This past spring, if you wanted to find out about the nefarious activities transpiring at Goldman Sachs, you had to be familiar with Zero Hedge or GoldmanSachs666.com.  Today, you need look no further than Maureen Dowd’s column or the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live.  Everyone knows what the problem is.  Gordon Gekko’s 1987 proclamation that “greed is good” has not only become an acceptable fact of life, it has infected our laws and the opinions rendered by our highest courts.  We are now living with the consequences.

Fortunately, there are plenty of people in the American financial sector who are concerned about the well-being of our society.  A recent study by David Weild and Edward Kim (Capital Markets Advisors at Grant Thornton LLP) entitled “A wake-up call for America” has revealed the tragic consequences resulting from the fact that the United States, when compared with other developed countries, has fallen seriously behind in the number of companies listed on our stock exchanges.  Here’s some of what they had to say:

The United States has been engaged in a longstanding experiment to cut commission and trading costs.  What is lacking in this process is the understanding that higher transaction costs actually subsidized services that supported investors.  Lower transaction costs have ushered in the age of  “Casino Capitalism” by accommodating trading interests and enabling the growth of day traders and high-frequency trading.

The Great Depression in Listings was caused by a confluence of technological, legislative and regulatory events — termed The Great Delisting Machine — that started in 1996, before the 1997 peak year for U.S. listings.  We believe cost cutting advocates have gone overboard in a misguided attempt to benefit investors.  The result — investors, issuers and the economy have all been harmed.

The Grant Thornton study illustrates how and why “as many as 22 million” jobs have been lost since 1997, not to mention the destruction of retirement savings, forcing many people to come out of retirement and back to work.  Beyond that, smaller companies have found it more difficult to survive and business loans have become harder to obtain.

Aside from all the bad news, the report does offer solutions to this crisis:

The solutions offered will help get the U.S. back on track by creating high-quality jobs, driving economic growth, improving U.S. competitiveness, increasing the tax base, and decreasing the U.S. budget deficit — all while not costing the U.S. taxpayer a dime.

These solutions are easily adopted since they:

  • create new capital markets options while preserving current options,
  • expand choice for consumers and issuers,
  • preserve SEC oversight and disclosure, including Sarbanes-Oxley, in the public market solution, and
  • reserve private market participation only to “qualified” investors, thus protecting those investors that  need protection.

These solutions would refocus a significant portion of Wall Street on rebuilding the U.S. economy.

The Grant Thornton website also has a page containing links to the appropriate legislators and a prepared message you can send, urging those legislators to take action to resolve this crisis.

Now is your chance to do something that can help address the many problems with our economy and our financial system.  The people at Grant Thornton were thoughtful enough to facilitate your participation in the resolution of this crisis.  Let the officials in Washington know what their bosses — the people — expect from them.



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The Al Franken Month

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January 26, 2009

At the end of 1979, Al Franken appeared on the “Weekend Update News” during Saturday Night Live to announce that the 1980s would be “The Al Franken Decade”.  For those of us old enough to remember, it’s scary to realize that “The Al Franken Decade” ended almost twenty years ago.  In 1999, Franken released a book entitled:  Why Not Me? concerning his fictitious run for the Presidency in 2000.  The cover of the book featured a photograph of Franken being sworn in as President.  Although many news publications restrict their discussions of Franken’s background to the subject of his years with Saturday Night Live, they overlook the elements on his resume qualifying him to serve as a United States Senator.  For one thing, he graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1973.  In 1996, he wrote a book entitled: Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, wherein he dared to challenge the most outspoken pundit of conservative talk radio.  The book found its way to the number one spot on the New York Times best seller list.  He subsequently took on the Fox News organization with his book:  Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.  The book sported a picture of Bill O’Reilly on the cover and included a chapter criticizing O’Reilly’s on-air statements.  From 2004 through 2007, Franken hosted his own talk show on Air America Radio.  His program was primarily focused on political issues.

Franken’s Minnesota campaign against Norm Coleman for the United States Senate has found its way into the court system, with the trial scheduled to begin today.  By the time votes had been counted (on November 18) Coleman was ahead by only 215 votes.  Because the candidates were separated by less than 0.5 percent of the vote, Minnesota law required an automatic recount.  On January 5, 2009, the Minnesota State Canvassing Board certified the recounted vote totals, with Franken leading by 225 votes.  The next day, Coleman filed suit, contesting the recount result.  The trial of this case is taking place before a three-judge panel of “trial-level” judges.  As you can imagine, there will likely be an appeal from whatever result is reached in that case.  In the mean time, Franken has filed a motion before the Minnesota Supreme Court to compel Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Governor Tim Pawlenty to sign the election certificate, designating Franken as the winner.  That hearing is set for February 5.

A good source for understanding the court battle over this Senate seat is MinnPost.com.  There, you will find Jay Weiner’s guide to the trial as a handy reference.  Mr. Weiner has spelled out the issues raised by Coleman’s suit in the following manner:

Were the more than 2.9 million votes cast on Nov. 4, 2008, for Democratic challenger Al Franken and Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman counted accurately, fairly and uniformly statewide?

Were about 11,000 of the 288,000 absentee ballots cast rejected properly and with consistent measures in all 87 counties?

Were any votes counted twice? Just because a precinct registry says 20 people voted and 22 votes exist, does that mean votes were double counted?  Are there other reasons such discrepancies could exist?

Should votes cast on Election Day that have since gone missing be counted?

Should votes that were found after Election Day that weren’t originally counted by included in the final tally?

Jay Weiner’s article also included his take on the ultimate outcome of this suit:

For all the talk of alleged double-counted votes or missing votes or newly found votes after Election Day, it seems unlikely that Coleman can scrounge up enough votes in those categories to net him the 226 new votes he needs.

Meanwhile, Michael O’Brien of The Hill website, has disclosed that Coleman has taken a job with the Republican Jewish Coalition while this battle continues:

In what could be seen as a sign that Coleman thinks his bid to return to the Senate may be lost, he has signed on to do consulting work for the group, which is comprised of a number GOP leaders.

“The senator needs to earn a living while the contest is going on,” said Coleman spokesman Mark Drake, who said the job does not at all affect Coleman’s bid to win reelection.

With the Democratic Party poised to capture yet another Senate seat, we can expect a lot of excitement to surround this trial.  The Al Franken Decade may be long gone but, like it or not, the current decade has brought us The Al Franken Month.  Beyond that, if this trial ends up the way most commentators expect, the United States Senate will experience at least one Al Franken Term.  Six years may not be another decade … but it should be fun.

Barack Anxiety Builds On The Left

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December 8, 2008

With each passing day, we see an increase of editorial essays with the same theme:  After winning the election, will Barack Obama abandon the liberal or progressive base of the Democratic Party?  Some of the more strident ideologues from the liberal side of the spectrum are becoming more vocal in expressing anxiety about where the Obama Administration might take us.  This distress results from the President-elect’s recent naming of Cabinet and other high-level appointees.

For example, On December 1, Katrina vanden Heuvel posted an article on The Nation website, expressing dismay over Obama’s decision to allow Robert Gates to continue serving as Secretary of Defense under the new administration.  The criticism she voiced about the new foreign policy / national security team exemplifies the perspective of many writers concerning the entire list of appointments disclosed by Obama so far:

For Obama, who’s said he wants to be challenged by his advisors, wouldn’t it have made sense to include at least one person on the foreign policy/national security team who would challenge him with some new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century?  Isn’t the idea of a broader bandwidth of ideas also at the heart of this ballyhooed “team of rivals” stuff?

Commentator David Sirota has been quite vocal in articulating his disappointment over Obama’s cabinet picks.  Back on November 19, he had this to say on the Campaign for America’s Future website:

Look, I’m all for “inclusion” – but let’s also remember, the most comprehensive post-election poll shows that a whopping 70 percent of Americans want conservatives to bend to Obama’s agenda, not the other way around.  And so what about the other side of the “team?”  If “Team of Rivals” = “Bipartisanship,” shouldn’t there be some full-on progressives in some very powerful positions?  Wouldn’t that complete the “team” in “Team of Rivals” and the “bi” in “bipartisan?”  Or are we really not going to see a “team” nor “bipartisanship” – but merely lockstep corporatism/conservatism disguised with the latest happy sounding terms from the (David) Broder dictionary?

Robert Scheer voiced similar uncertainty about Obama’s appointments in a December 2 posting on the Truthdig website:

Yet, it all does hang on him.  Yes, Obama.  The superstar, and not that supporting cast of retreads from a failed past that have popped up in his administration in the making.  Now that we have the list of his top economic and foreign policy picks — mostly a collection of folks who wouldn’t know change if it slapped them upside the head — we’ve got to hope that it’s Obama who is using them, and not the other way around.

*   *   *

The problem with Obama’s national security team is not that he has picked hawks whom he cannot control; they are all professionals, who took the job expecting to go along with his game plan.  The danger here, as with his economic advisers, is only that Obama may stop being Obama, the agent of change who electrified a nation.

The analyses of Obama’s loyalty to the progressive base of the Democratic Party were not restricted to the liberal-oriented blogs.  John Harwood’s article in the December 6 New York Times provided us with a more optimistic view of what we might expect from the Obama Administration:

All this raises the question: can Mr. Obama indeed be forging the new style of politics he invoked so often during the election — one that transcends the partisan divisions that have marked recent administrations?  If so, what will he replace it with, a bipartisan style of governance that splits the differences between competing ideological camps, or a “post-partisan” politics that narrows gaps between red and blue or even renders them irrelevant?

Actually, insiders in Mr. Obama’s emerging team foresee a third option:  a series of left-leaning programs that draw on Americans’ desire for action and also on Mr. Obama’s moderate, even conservative, temperament, to hurdle the ideological obstacles that have lately paralyzed Washington.

Robert Creamer demonstrated a similarly positive outlook in his November 24 posting on the Campaign for America’s Future website:

Barack Obama will not govern from the “center right”, but he will govern from the “center”.  That’s not because he is “moving to the center”.  It’s because the center of American politics has changed.  It has moved where the American people are.  It once again resides in the traditional progressive center that has defined America’s promise since Thomas Jefferson penned its founding document over 200 years ago.

As we approach the initial days of the Obama Administration, it seems amusing to observe more squeamishness about our next President, coming from those on the political left than from those on the right.  The McCain campaign’s old theme:  “Who is Barack Obama?” seems to be lingering in the minds of many Obama supporters.  Saturday Night Live taught a lesson to all of the worriers, with the sketch:  “Obama Plays It Cool” .  Fear not, ye of leftist leanings!  Just stay cool.

PSD

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October 23, 2008

It happened again.  Another conservative pundit predicted that Barack Obama would likely become the 44th President of the United States.  This time it was David Frum, appearing on The Colbert Report.  Frum stated that the McCain-Palin ticket is unlikely to win the election, unless Obama-Biden loses it.  With that in mind, Joe Biden has now begun wearing his Halloween costume.  He will continue to do so through Halloween weekend for the supposed purpose of entering as many Halloween costume contests as possible.  Halloween is on a Friday this year.  Biden has been entered in contests through Sunday night.  He will be wearing a ball gag in his mouth.  He will be carrying a card with the following explanation:

This is my Halloween costume.  I am the “ball gag guy” from Pulp Fiction.

After the Halloween costume contests, Biden will be able to remove the gag from his mouth during the wee hours of Monday morning.  On Monday, he will begin eating soft pastas and work his way up to solid food.  Tuesday won’t matter, since that will be Election Day.

Unfortunately, things look worse for Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin.  I am reminded of her fate by the constant appearance of Brooke Shields on TV.  By now, most of the public might realize that Brooke is apparently suffering from Post-Stardom Depression (PSD).  This condition has ostensibly caused her to appear in televised Volkswagen commercials.  Poor Brooke!  Her self-esteem must have gone through the floorboards!  Isn’t there any medication that can help her with this?  Did Tom Cruise dissuade her from taking it?

Meanwhile, Republican operatives have already announced that Sarah Palin’s campaign outfits will be given to charity after the election.  At least Sarah managed to secure possession of “The Cards” (the cue cards from her appearance on Saturday Night Live).  After the election, PSD could likely put Sarah into a world of hurt.  Trig would be sitting in his playpen, crying … and Sarah would be sitting on the rec room floor, crying and hugging The Cards.  All will be lost.  She will be forced to return to her existence as the Governor of the State of Alaska.  Her attention will be abruptly refocused from the world’s most monumental crises, to the humdrum issues involving meth labs and snow machines.  She would, no doubt, do her best to cope with this malady.  She might go so far as to seek compensation for this unexpected hardship.  The Republican Party could hire experts to testify that PSD does not really exist.  Governor Palin might be forced to hire experts to dispute those opinions and, in the process, eventually be compelled to disclose personal records concerning the consultations between those experts and herself.  It could get really ugly.  The would-be “poster woman” of the future “gender-inclusive” Republican Party might end up being portrayed by her former advisors as just another “claimant”, attempting to milk the “frivolous lawsuit” system for all it is worth.

Many of us began to suspect that Sarah would get “thrown under the bus” after the election.  We became suspicious of this, once she was assigned to deliver the “cheap shots” against Obama in her stump speeches.  MSNBC’s Chuck Todd has already expressed suspicion that John McCain might be harboring resentment toward Palin, out of concern that she could be the reason for his diminished standing in the polls.  After all, most commentators believe her candidacy wasn’t McCain’s idea, anyway.  At the Republican Convention, Newt Gingrich did a lot of bragging that the selection of Palin was his idea.  Will this bragging continue after Election Day?

In the weeks ahead, the human tragedy could take its toll.  Will Sarah Palin be left in the ditch with PSD?  Will it be necessary for her to “eat crow” and capitulate to reliance on Barack Obama’s health care plan, to address PSD?  Regardless of what the courts might do with such a claim, karmic justice would prevail.