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Dumping On The Dimon Dog

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The Dimon Dog has been eating crow for the past few days, following a very public humiliation.  The outspoken critic of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act found himself explaining a $2 billion loss sustained by his firm, JPMorgan Chase, as a result of involvement in the very type of activity the Act’s “Volcker Rule” was intended to prevent.  Financial industry lobbyists have been busy, frustrating regulatory attempts to implement Dodd-Frank’s provisions which call for stricter regulation of securities trading and transactions involving derivatives.  Appropriately enough, it was an irresponsible derivatives trading strategy which put Jamie Dimon on the hot seat.  The widespread criticism resulting from this episode was best described by Lizzie O’Leary (@lizzieohreally) with a single-word tweet:  Dimonfreude.

The incident in question involved a risky bet made by a London-based trader named Bruno Iksil – nicknamed “The London Whale” – who works in JP Morgan’s Chief Investment Office, or CIO.  An easy-to-understand explanation of this trade was provided by Heidi Moore, who emphasized that Iksil’s risky position was no secret before it went south:

Everyone knew.  Thousands of people.  Iksil’s bets have been well known ever since Bloomberg’s Stephanie Ruhle broke the news in early April.  A trader at rival bank, Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote to clients back then, saying that Iksil’s huge bet was attracting attention and hedge funds believed him to be too optimistic and were betting against him, waiting for Iksil to crash.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the Merrill Lynch trader wrote, “Fast money has smelt blood.

When the media, analysts and other traders raised concerns on JP Morgan’s earnings conference call last month, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon dismissed their worries as “a tempest in a teapot.”

Dimon’s smug attitude about the trade (prior to its demise) was consistent with the hubris he exhibited while maligning Dodd-Frank, thus explaining why so many commentators took delight in Dimon’s embarrassment.  On May 11, Kevin Roose of DealBook offered a preliminary round-up of the criticism resulting from this episode:

In a research note, a RBC analyst, Gerard Cassidy, called the incident a “hit to credibility” at the bank, while the Huffington Post’s Mark Gongloff said, “Funny thing:  Some of the constraints of the very Dodd-Frank financial reform act Dimon hates could have prevented it.”  Slate’s Matthew Yglesias pointed back to statements Mr. Dimon made in opposition to the Volcker Rule and other proposed regulations, and quipped, “Indeed, if only JPMorgan were allowed to run a thinner capital buffer and riskier trades.  Then we’d all feel safe.”

Janet Tavakoli pointed out that this event is simply the most recent chapter in Dimon’s history of allowing the firm to follow risky trading strategies:

At issue is corporate governance at JPMorgan and the ability of its CEO, Jamie Dimon, to manage its risk.  It’s reasonable to ask whether any CEO can manage the risks of a bank this size, but the questions surrounding Jamie Dimon’s management are more targeted than that.  The problem Jamie Dimon has is that JPMorgan lost control in multiple areas.  Each time a new problem becomes public, it is revealed that management controls weren’t adequate in the first place.

*   *   *

Jamie Dimon’s problem as Chairman and CEO–his dual role raises further questions about JPMorgan’s corporate governance—is that just two years ago derivatives trades were out of control in his commodities division.  JPMorgan’s short coal position was over sized relative to the global coal market.  JPMorgan put this position on while the U.S. is at war.  It was not a customer trade; the purpose was to make money for JPMorgan.  Although coal isn’t a strategic commodity, one should question why the bank was so reckless.

After trading hours on Thursday of this week, Jamie Dimon held a conference call about $2 billion in mark-to-market losses in credit derivatives (so far) generated by the Chief Investment Office, the bank’s “investment” book.  He admitted:

“In hindsight, the new strategy was flawed, complex, poorly reviewed, poorly executed, and poorly monitored.”

At The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson focused on the karmic significance of Dimon’s making such an admission after having belittled Paul Volcker and Dallas FedHead Richard Fisher at a party in Dallas last month:

During the party, Mr. Dimon took questions from the crowd, according to an attendee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the bank. One guest asked about the problem of too-big-to-fail banks and the arguments made by Mr. Volcker and Mr. Fisher.

Mr. Dimon responded that he had just two words to describe them:  “infantile” and “nonfactual.”  He went on to lambaste Mr. Fisher further, according to the attendee.  Some in the room were taken aback by the comments.

*   *   *

The hypocrisy is that our nation’s big financial institutions, protected by implied taxpayer guarantees, oppose regulation on the grounds that it would increase their costs and reduce their profit.  Such rules are unfair, they contend.  But in discussing fairness, they never talk about how fair it is to require taxpayers to bail out reckless institutions when their trades imperil them.  That’s a question for another day.

AND the fact that large institutions arguing against transparency in derivatives trading won’t acknowledge that such rules could also save them from themselves is quite the paradox.

Dimon’s rant at the Dallas party was triggered by a fantastic document released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas on March 21:  its 2011 Annual Report, featuring an essay entitled, “Choosing the Road to Prosperity – Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now”.  The essay was written by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.

With his own criticism of Dimon’s attitude, Robert Reich invoked the position asserted by the Dallas Fed:

And now – only a few years after the banking crisis that forced American taxpayers to bail out the Street, caused home values to plunge by more than 30 percent, pushed millions of homeowners underwater, threatened or diminished the savings of millions more, and sent the entire American economy hurtling into the worst downturn since the Great Depression – J.P. Morgan Chase recapitulates the whole debacle with the same kind of errors, sloppiness, bad judgment, and poorly-executed and excessively risky trades that caused the crisis in the first place.

In light of all this, Jamie Dimon’s promise that J.P. Morgan will “fix it and move on” is not reassuring.

The losses here had been mounting for at least six weeks, according to Morgan. Where was the new transparency that’s supposed to allow regulators to catch these things before they get out of hand?

*   *   *

But let’s also stop hoping Wall Street will mend itself.  What just happened at J.P. Morgan – along with its leader’s cavalier dismissal followed by lame reassurance – reveals how fragile and opaque the banking system continues to be, why Glass-Steagall must be resurrected, and why the Dallas Fed’s recent recommendation that Wall Street’s giant banks be broken up should be heeded.

At Salon, Andrew Leonard focused on the embarrassment this episode could bring to Mitt Romney:

Because if anyone is going to come out of this mess looking even stupider than Jamie Dimon, it’s got to be Mitt Romney – the presidential candidate actively campaigning on a pledge to repeal Dodd-Frank.

Perhaps Mr. Romney might want to consider strapping The Dimon Dog to the roof of his car for a little ride to Canada.


 

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Losing The Propaganda War

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The propaganda war waged by corporatist news media against the Occupy Wall Street movement is rapidly deteriorating.  When the occupation of Zuccotti Park began on September 17, the initial response from mainstream news outlets was to simply ignore it – with no mention of the event whatsoever.  When that didn’t work, the next tactic involved using the “giggle factor” to characterize the protesters as “hippies” or twenty-something “hippie wanna-bes”, attempting to mimic the protests in which their parents participated during the late-1960s.  When that mischaracterization failed to get any traction, the presstitutes’ condemnation of the occupation events – which had expanded from nationwide to worldwide – became more desperate:  the participants were called everything from “socialists” to “anti-Semites”.

Despite the incessant flow of propaganda from those untrustworthy sources, a good deal of commentary – understanding, sympathetic or even supportive of Occupy Wall Street began to appear in some unlikely places.  For example, Roger Lowenstein wrote a piece for Bloomberg BusinessWeek entitled, “Occupy Wall Street: It’s Not a Hippie Thing”:

As critics have noted, the protesters are not in complete agreement with each other, but the overall message is reasonably coherent.  They want more and better jobs, more equal distribution of income, less profit (or no profit) for banks, lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on banks with regard to negotiating consumer services such as mortgages and debit cards.  They also want to reduce the influence that corporations – financial firms in particular – wield in politics, and they want a more populist set of government priorities: bailouts for student debtors and mortgage holders, not just for banks.

In stark contrast with the disparaging sarcasm spewed by the tools at CNBC and Fox News concerning this subject, The Economist demonstrated why it enjoys such widespread respect:

So the big banks’ apologies for their role in messing up the world economy have been grudging and late, and Joe Taxpayer has yet to hear a heartfelt “thank you” for bailing them out.  Summoned before Congress, Wall Street bosses have made lawyerised statements that make them sound arrogant, greedy and unrepentant.  A grand gesture or two – such as slashing bonuses or giving away a tonne of money – might have gone some way towards restoring public faith in the industry.  But we will never know because it didn’t happen.

On the contrary, Wall Street appears to have set its many brilliant minds the task of infuriating the public still further, by repossessing homes of serving soldiers, introducing fees for using debit cards and so on.  Goldman Sachs showed a typical tin ear by withdrawing its sponsorship of a fund-raiser for a credit union (financial co-operative) on November 3rd because it planned to honour Occupy Wall Street.

The Washington Post conducted a poll with the Pew Research Center which compared and contrasted popular support for Occupy Wall Street with that of the Tea Party movement.  The poll revealed that ten percent of Americans support both movements.  On the other hand, Tea Party support is heavily drawn from Republican voters (71%) while only 24% of Republicans – as opposed to 64% of Democrats – support Occupy Wall Street.  As for self-described “Moderates”, only 24% support the Tea Party compared with Occupy Wall Street’s 45% support from Moderates.  Rest assured that these numbers will not deter unscrupulous critics from describing Occupy Wall Street as a “fringe movement”.

The best smackdown of the shabby reportage on Occupy Wall Street came from Dahlia Lithwick of Slate:

Mark your calendars:  The corporate media died when it announced it was too sophisticated to understand simple declarative sentences.  While the mainstream media expresses puzzlement and fear at these incomprehensible “protesters” with their oddly well-worded “signs,” the rest of us see our own concerns reflected back at us and understand perfectly.  Turning off mindless programming might be the best thing that ever happens to this polity.  Hey, occupiers:  You’re the new news. And even better, by refusing to explain yourselves, you’re actually changing what’s reported as news.  Because it takes a tremendous mental effort to refuse to see that the rich are getting richer in America while the rest of us are struggling.  Maybe the days of explaining the patently obvious to the transparently compromised are finally behind us.

By refusing to take a ragtag, complicated, and leaderless movement seriously, the mainstream media has succeeded only in ensuring its own irrelevance.  The rest of America has little trouble understanding that these are ragtag, complicated, and leaderless times.  This may not make for great television, but any movement that acknowledges that fact deserves enormous credit.

Too many mainstream news outlets appear to be suffering from the same disease as our government and our financial institutions.  Jeremy Grantham’s Third Quarter 2011 newsletter will be coming out in a few days and I’m hoping that he will prescribe a cure.  My wilder dream is that those vested with the authority and responsibility to follow his advice would simply do so.


 

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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?


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Another Cartoon For The Bernank To Hate

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Those of us who found it necessary to explain quantitative easing during the course of a blog posting, have struggled with creating our own definitions of the term.  On October 18, 2010, I started using this one:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

What I failed to include in that description was the fact that the Fed was printing money to make those purchases.  I eventually resorted to simply linking the term to the definition of quantitative easing at Wikipedia.org.

Suddenly, in November of 2010, a cartoon – posted on YouTube – became an overnight sensation.  It was a 6-minute discussion between two little bears, which explained how “The Ben Bernank” was trying to fix a broken economy by breaking it more.

We eventually learned a few things about the cartoon’s creator, Omid Malekan, who produced the clip for free on the xtranormal.com website.  Kevin Depew, the Editor-in-Chief of Minyanville, interviewed Malekan within days of the cartoon’s debut.  Malekan expressed his disgust with what he described as “the Washington-Wall Street Complex” and the revolving door between the financial industry and those agencies tasked to regulate it.  David Weigel of Slate interviewed Malekan on November 22, 2010 (eleven days after the cartoon was made).  At that point, we learned a bit about the political views of the 30-year-old, former stock trader-turned-real estate manager:

I’m all over the map.  Socially, I’m pretty liberal.  Economically, I’m fairly free-market oriented.  I generally prefer to vote third party, because it’s just good for the country if we get another voice in there.  To me none of this is really partisan because things are the same under both parties.  Ben Bernanke was appointed by Bush and re-appointed by Obama, so they both have basically the same policies.  The problem, really, is that monetary policy is now removed from people in general.  People like Bernanke don’t have to get elected.  There’s a disconnect between them and the people their decisions are affecting.

One month later, Malekan was interviewed by “Evan” of The Point Blog at the Sam Adams Alliance.  On this occasion, the animator explained his decision to put “the” in front of so many proper names, as well as his reference to Ben Bernanke as “The Bernank”.  Malekan had this to say about the popularity of the cartoon:

To be fully honest, I had no idea this would get the wide audience that it did.  Initially when I made it, it was to explain it to a select group of friends of mine.  And any other straggler that happened to see it, and I never thought that would be over 3 million people.  But, the main reason was cause I think monetary policy is important to everybody because it’s monetary policy.  Unlike fiscal policy or regulation, monetary policy, because of the way it impacts interest rates and the dollar, impacts every single person that buys and sells and earns dollars.  So I think it’s something that everybody should be paying attention to, but most people don’t because it’s not ever presented to them in a way they could hope to understand it.

Omid Malekan produced another helpful cartoon on January 28.  The new six-minute clip, “Bank Bailouts Explained” provides the viewer with an understanding of what many of us know as Maiden Lane III – as well as how the other “backdoor bailouts” work, including the true cost of Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) to the taxpayers.  This cartoon is important because it can disabuse people of the propaganda based on the claim that the Wall Street megabanks – particularly Goldman Sachs – owe the American taxpayers nothing because they repaid the TARP bailouts.  I discussed this obfuscation back on November 26, 2009:

For whatever reason, a number of commentators have chosen to help defend Goldman Sachs against what they consider to be unfair criticism.  A recent example came to us from James Stewart of The New Yorker.  Stewart had previously written a 25-page essay for that magazine, entitled “Eight Days” — a dramatic chronology of the financial crisis as it unfolded during September of 2008.  Last week, Stewart seized upon the release of the recent SIGTARP report to defend Goldman with a blog posting which characterized the report as supportive of the argument that Goldman owes the taxpayers nothing as a result of the government bailouts resulting from that near-meltdown.  (In case you don’t know, a former Assistant U.S. District Attorney from New York named Neil Barofsky was nominated by President Bush as the Special Investigator General of the TARP program.  The acronym for that job title is SIGTARP.)   In his blog posting, James Stewart began by characterizing Goldman’s detractors as “conspiracy theorists”.  That was a pretty weak start.  Stewart went on to imply that the SIGTARP report refuted the claims by critics that, despite Goldman’s repayment of the TARP bailout, it did not repay the government the billions it received as a counterparty to AIG’s collateralized debt obligations.  Stewart referred to language in the SIGTARP report to support the spin that because “Goldman was fully hedged on its exposure both to a failure by A.I.G. and to the deterioration of value in its collateralized debt obligations” and that “(i)t repaid its TARP loans with interest, bought back the government’s warrants at a nice profit to the Treasury” Goldman therefore owes the government nothing — other than “a special debt of gratitude”.  One important passage from page 22 of the SIGTARP report that Stewart conveniently ignored, concerned the money received by Goldman Sachs as an AIG counterparty by way of Maiden Lane III, at which point those credit default obligations (of questionable value) were purchased at an excessive price by the government.  Here’s that passage from the SIGTARP report:

When FRBNY authorized the creation of Maiden Lane III in November 2008, it lent approximately $24.6 billion to the newly formed limited liability company, and AIG provided Maiden Lane III approximately $5 billion in equity.  These funds were used to purchase CDOs from AIG counterparties worth an estimated fair value of $29.6 billion at the time of the purchases, which were done in three stages on November 25, 2008, December 18, 2008, and December 22, 2008.  AIGFP’s counterparties were paid $27.1 billion, and AIGFP was paid $2.5 billion per an agreement between AIGFP and FRBNY.  The $2.5 billion represented the amount of collateral that AIGFP had previously paid to the counterparties that was in excess of the actual decline in the fair value as of October 31, 2008.

FRBNY’s loan to Maiden Lane III is secured by the CDOs as the underlying assets.  After the loan has been repaid in full plus interest, and, to the extent that there are sufficient remaining cash proceeds, AIG will be entitled to repayment of the $5 billion that the company contributed in equity, plus accrued interest.  After repayment in full of the loan and the equity contribution (each including accrued interest), any remaining proceeds will be split 67 percent to FRBNY and 33 percent to AIG.

The end result was a $12.9 billion gift to “The Goldman Sachs”.

Thanks to Mr. Malekan, we now have a cartoon that explains how all of AIG’s counterparties were bailed out at taxpayer expense, along with an informative discourse about the other “backdoor bailouts”.

Omid Malekan has his own website here.  You should make a point of regularly checking in on it, so you can catch his next cartoon before someone takes the opportunity to spoil all of the jokes for you.  Enjoy!


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Tool-Trashing Time

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I never liked Joe “The Tool” Lieberman.  If you run that name (nickname included) on the search bar at the upper-right corner of this page, you will find a total of 13 previous entries wherein I discussed him in uncomplimentary terms.  What bugs me most about Lieberman is that so many people consider him as the personification of centrism.  I believe that Lieberman gives centrism a bad name because he is simply an opportunist.    The guy doesn’t really appear to stand for anything in particular – he is simply a tool for whatever lobbyist or other interest group is willing to play his quid pro quo game.  After Lieberman lost the Democratic Primary for his Senate seat in 2006, he chose to run as an Independent and in the process, he betrayed those individuals who contributed to his election campaign, believing that Lieberman would champion the causes he advanced before he had to sell his soul to Bush and Cheney in order to save his political hide.  It was only because Ned Lamont (the man who defeated him in the Democratic Primary) came down with a bad case of  The Smug – spending more time vacationing than campaigning for the November election – that Lieberman managed to win a fourth term as junior Senator from Connecticut.

Needless to say, Emily Bazelon’s recent article for Slate, “Good Riddance, Joe Lieberman – Why I loathe my Connecticut Senator” was a real treat.  It was nice to see that a good number of people were as thrilled as I to hear that The Tool was calling it quits.  While discussing the celebratory outpouring of enthusiasm by anti-Lieberman-ites Ms. Bazelon mentioned this:

Another friend, Judy Chevalier, burned up her iPad tonight when I asked her to enumerate why she hates Joe Lieberman.  She ticked off a half-dozen reasons and then said, “The thing is, I did not come up with most of these myself.  They come from many rounds of playing the peculiar Connecticut liberal cocktail party game ‘I hated Joe Lieberman before you hated Joe Lieberman.’ ”  Longtime Lieberman haters, she says, look all the way back to 1993, when Lieberman led a hedge-fund-friendly charge in the Senate against the Financial Accounting Standards Board, which at the time wanted to close the accounting loophole that let corporations duck the recording of stock options on their balance sheets.

As an aside, the first half of that passage was characterized as “the money quote” by the Red State blog and other far-right commentators, anxious to avenge Sarah Palin since her “crosshairs” SarahPac campaign ad was criticized after the attempted assassination of Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  The magic word, “hate” gave the hard right the opportunity to argue that “liberals hate politicians, too”.  Actually, the real “money quote” can be found by clicking on the highlighted language discussing the fight over the Financial Accounting Standards Board rules:

Corporate America aligned with the accounting industry to fight the FASB proposal, with the result that in 1994, the Senate, led by Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), passed a non-binding resolution condemning the proposal by a vote of 88-to-9.

“It wasn’t an accounting debate,” says Jim Leisenring, the vice chairman of FASB from 1988 to 2000.  “We switched from talking about, ‘Have we accurately measured the option?’ or, ‘Have we expensed the option on the proper date?’ to things like, ‘Western civilization will not exist without stock options,’ or, ‘There won’t be jobs anymore for people without stock options.’ … People tried to take the argument away from the accounting to be just plainly a political argument.”

Does that rhetoric sound familiar?

After his 2006 victory, Lieberman continued to betray the people of Connecticut by abandoning his duties in the Senate to follow John McCain all along the 2008 campaign trail (including McCain’s trip to Afganistan) in the hope of securing a place for himself in the would-be McCain administration.  The Tool knew he would never win a fifth term in the Senate.  His only hope was to latch on to McCain’s pantsleg and hang on for dear life.  In the wake of that fiasco, The Tool’s approval rating continued to slide and by October of 2010, it was down to 31 percent.  A fifth term in the Senate was definitely out of the question.  His campaign war chest could be put to better uses – such as buying “friendships” before beginning a new career as a lobbyist.

Despite Lieberman’s crucial effort in the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask – don’t tell” policy, it is interesting to observe how many gay people are willing to overlook that good deed while celebrating Lieberman’s retirement.  A review of the comments at the joemygod blog exposes these reactions:

Good riddance.  DADT capped an otherwise awful career as a spoiler.

*   *   *

Thanks for DADT, but not terribly sorry you’re leaving the Senate.  And I really didn’t want the anxiety of watching a 3-way race in CT, which might have sent a wingnut from the Right to the Senate.

*   *   *

good riddance to the man who killed the public option to satisfy his insurance industry friends in Connecticut. a terrible person

So much for that legacy thing   .   .   .

Daniela Altimari of The Hartford Courant’s CapitolWatch blog, revealed a wide spectrum of reactions to Lieberman’s announcement.  As one might expect, the remarks from politicians were painfully cordial, polite and not worth our time here.  I’ll provide you with two of the more interesting quotes:

“Joe Lieberman took millions from insurance companies, Wall Street banks, and other corporate interests – and then did their dirty work in Congress, including killing the public option.  As a result, Lieberman’s poll numbers were disastrous in Connecticut.  His decision to quit in the face of assured defeat is a huge victory for the progressive movement and all Americans who want Democrats to put regular families ahead of corporate interests.”

—  Keauna Gregory, Progressive Change Campaign Committee

*   *   *

“Of all the horrible things Joe Lieberman has done in his hideous career, depriving everyone of the joy at seeing him lose is near the top”

—  Glenn Greenwald of Salon (via Twitter)

The Connecticut Mirror provided these reactions:

“It’s the first thing he’s done in 10 years to make Connecticut Democrats completely happy.”

—  Bill Curry, former state comptroller, as quoted in The New York Times

*   *   *

“He couldn’t leave the Senate fast enough as far as I’m concerned. He’s not only driving Democrats nuts down here, but he’s become a right-wing extremist on everything except the environment and gay rights.”

—  Ralph Nader, as quoted in The Hartford Courant

*   *   *

“He will leave behind a long list of achievements, from helping to consolidate the nation’s intelligence gathering services in a way that appears to make it more difficult to gather intelligence, to threatening to filibuster the health care reform act until it had been watered down to suit his own high principles.  You will find it all in my upcoming book, ‘Everything Bad Is Joe Lieberman’s Fault.’ ”

—  Gail Collins, writing in The New York Times

As we approach The Tool’s final days in the Senate, I will be looking forward to similar tributes.


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2010 Jackass Of The Year Award

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Once again, the moment has arrived for TheCenterLane.com to present its Jackass of The Year Award.  Our 2010 recipient is Alaska’s Senatorial candidate, Joe Miller.

Joe Miller’s campaign to defeat Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska’s 2010 Republican Primary got a big boost when Governor Sarah Palin decided to leave office to become a full-time celebrity.  Palin’s decision was immediately criticized by Senator Murkowski.  Palin responded to the criticism by endorsing Murkowski’s opponent in the Republican Primary:  Joe Miller.  Miller then won the support of the Tea Party Express, who – according to The Washington Post – spent more than $150,000 on pro-Miller television and radio ads during the week before the primary.  In addition to the mobilization of the Tea Party activists, Miller benefited from an initiative on the Alaska Republican Primary ballot requiring parental consent before a girl aged 17 or younger could receive an abortion.  Alaska’s most conservative voters were out in force on Primary Day.  The Washington Post article highlighted some of Miller’s positions that helped him curry favor with Alaska’s “hard right” voters:

He has called for phasing out Medicare and Social Security, as well as eliminating the Education Department because it is not mandated in the Constitution.

Never mind the fact that neither the FBI nor the Department of Homeland Security has been mandated by the Constitution.  The “lack of a Constitutional mandate” litmus test is only applied to those bureaucracies considered repugnant to Joe Miller.

Because the deadline for filing as an “Independent” candidate on Alaska’s November (general election) ballot had already expired by the August 24 primary, it was necessary for Lisa Murkowski to run as a “write-in” candidate in order to retain her Senate seat.

During the course of the ensuing campaign, Miller’s foolishness provided the news media with plenty of entertainment.  Despite Miller’s rhetoric, which called for limited government and fiscal restraint, Anne Applebaum of Slate recalled that Miller’s background became an issue in the campaign, since it was so inconsistent with that of a Tea Party hero:

During the course of the campaign, it also emerged that he had once collected farm subsidies; that his wife had once collected unemployment benefits; and that his family had received state health benefits.

Upon hearing that Murkowski would not abandon her quest to retain her Senate seat after her Republican Primary defeat, Mr. Miller immediately made a foolish statement, which he attempted to blame on an unidentified staffer.  Jim Carlton of the Washington Wire blog provided this quote of the now-infamous message sent out from Joe Miller’s Twitter account:

“What’s the difference between selling out your party’s values and the world’s oldest profession?” said the message under Mr. Miller’s Twitter address early Friday.

Mr. Miller said the tweet was sent by a staffer who was temporarily manning his account.  He added that the remark was aimed not at the senator herself, but at suggestions that Alaska’s Libertarian Party might allow Ms. Murkowski to run under its banner in November if she ends up losing to him in a final count of absentee ballots.

He blamed the tweet on “poor judgment” by the unidentified staffer, who he “relieved of his duties.”  He said he quickly removed the message from his Twitter feed.

If  Miller had not already done enough to alienate female voters — his Halloween-themed campaign ad, likening Lisa Murkowski to a witch, immediately drew the ire of the New Agenda website, which embedded a YouTube feed of the ad in this posting.

The most infamous event of Miller’s campaign occurred on October 17, when Tony Hopfinger, editor of the Alaska Dispatch website was handcuffed by Miller’s private security guards, when he attempted to interview the candidate at the conclusion of a “town hall” meeting at the Central Middle School in Anchorage.  The incident caused Miller to become the butt of many jokes on national television.

Hopfinger was attempting to question Miller about an incident that had become the subject of an e-mail that had originated a few days earlier from Mike Rostad, a Republican activist in Kodiak, Alaska, based on a discussion between Rostad and Miller’s father, Rex Miller.  The Anchorage Daily News provided this report:

Joe Miller was a part-time Fairbanks North Star Borough attorney in 2008 when he led an attempt to oust state Republican Party chief Randy Ruedrich.  Rostad wrote in the email that Rex Miller told him there was a poll being conducted during that effort against Ruedrich.  Rostad wrote that Rex Miller told him what happened:

“One noon hour, on his own time at the borough, Joe participated in an online poll voting against Randy.  He used four office computers in the office to do it, thinking this was his chance to boost numbers to get rid of Randy.  He emptied the cache files on the computers so the users wouldn’t know what he had done.  When the users asked what had happened to their caches, (Miller) admitted to what he did.  He was reprimanded and docked in pay for several days, but was not suspended or fired.

Miller’s improper computer use as a part-time attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough has been an ongoing controversy, which was the subject of this December 31 article from the Anchorage Daily News.

The handcuffing of Tony Hopfinger was not the only misstep by Joe Miller’s campaign on October 17.  Shira Toplitz of Politico reported on October 29 that the Murkowski campaign was running an ad, critical of two October 17 blunders:

The same night as the incident with the journalist, Miller told an audience that if “East Germany could, we could” secure the borders of the country — a controversial statement that Murkowski also uses in the new spot.

“Joe Miller’s answer to illegal immigration:  Use East Germany as an example,” continues the narrator.  “Exactly what kind of America does Joe Miller live in?  . . .”

Miller had nobody else to blame for his stupid remark exalting East Germany as a model for border security.

Once it became obvious that Lisa Murkowski made history as the first write-in candidate to win a Senate election since Strom Thurmond in 1954, Joe Miller took his battle to the courts.  He initially filed an action in Federal Court, although U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline stayed proceedings pending resolution of the dispute in the State court, where the action should have been brought.  Once the case was filed in the State Court, Judge William Carey dismissed the suit and it was appealed directly to the Alaska Supreme Court.  U.S. News reported that when the ballots were still being counted, the Miller camp was determined to turn the election into a spelling bee:

Shortly after the second day of write-in ballot counting began on Thursday, a Miller observer challenged a vote for Murkowski that appeared to have her name spelled and printed correctly, though the “L” in “Lisa” was in cursive handwriting.  Later, at least 10 ballots in which Murkowski’s name appeared readable were challenged, including one in which the vote read:  “Lisa Murkowski Republican.”

Miller’s campaign said observers are simply challenging votes that don’t meet the strict letter of the law — including those with minor misspellings of Murkowski’s name or those with legibility or penmanship issues.

In addition to the “spelling bee” demand, Miller also attempted to pursue a claim of misconduct by election officials amounting to election fraud.  The Christian Science Monitor provided this report on Judge Carey’s dismissal of that count:

“Nowhere does Miller provide facts showing a genuine issue of fraud or election official misfeasance,” Carey wrote.  “Instead, the majority of the problematic statements included in the affidavits are inadmissible hearsay, speculation, and occasional complaints of sarcasm expressed by [elections] workers.  Nothing rises to the level showing genuine material facts of fraud.”

The stupidity of Miller’s “spelling bee” requirement became more apparent once the Alaska Supreme Court was asked to reverse the dismissal of that claim.  During oral arguments, Justice Dana Fabe directed a Why are you here? question to Miller’s attorneys.  Here’s how that moment was described by KTUU News:

With unofficial results showing Miller behind Murkowski by 10,328 votes, or 2,169 when ballots challenged by Miller observers are excluded, Justice Dana Fabe asked Miller’s legal team what — if any — impact the court’s decision would have on the outcome of the election.

“Even if you win on this argument and every one of the challenged ballots is set aside, it makes no difference in this count, and it makes no difference in the outcome of this election unless you win on one of your other counts — isn’t that correct?” Fabe said.

In other words:  even if the contested ballots were not counted in accordance with the guidelines advanced by Miller’s legal team – Miller still would have lost by over two thousand votes!

So seriously:  What was the point of filing suit?  Was Miller hoping to get some sort of deal from the Republican Party for conceding defeat?  His lawsuit was as idiotic as his entire campaign had been.  As late as December 27, Miller was vowing to continue his battle in the Federal Court to contest the election result.  Nevertheless, as Miller should have learned at Yale Law School, the pursuit of such a specious claim in a Federal Court, would likely result in rather expensive sanctions against Miller and his attorneys under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, once his case was inevitably dismissed.  If that concern had not been enough to motivate Miller to abandon his Federal suit, it should have been enough to convince Miller’s attorneys that the game was finally over.  Miller ultimately conceded his defeat in the election on December 30, although he never made a concession call to Lisa Murkowski.  He explained that he had not made the call because he did not have Murkowski’s phone number.

Joe Miller may not have won the election to the United States Senate —  but he did win the 2010 Jackass of The Year Award from TheCenterLane.com.  Congratulations, Jackass!



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Fedbashing Is On The Rise

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It seems as though everyone is bashing the Federal Reserve these days.  In my last posting, I criticized the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).  Since that time, I’ve seen an onslaught of outrage directed against the Fed from across the political spectrum.  Bethany McLean of Slate made a similar observation on November 9.  As the subtitle to her piece suggested, people who criticized the Fed were usually considered “oddballs”.  Ms. McLean observed that the recent Quarterly Letter by Jeremy Grantham (which I discussed here) is just another example of anti-Fed sentiment from a highly-respected authority.  Ms. McLean stratified the degrees of anti-Fed-ism this way:

If Dante had nine circles of hell, then the Fed has three circles of doubters.  The first circle is critical of the Fed’s current policies. The second circle thinks that the Fed has been a menace for a long time.  The third circle wants to seriously curtail or even get rid of the Fed.

From the conservative end of the political spectrum, the Republican-oriented Investor’s Business Daily provided an editorial on November 9 entitled, “Fighting The Fed”.  More famously, in prepared remarks to be delivered during a trade association meeting in Phoenix, Sarah Palin ordered Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to “cease and desist” his plan to proceed with QE2.  As a result of the criticism of her statement by Sudeep Reddy of The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, it may be a while before we hear Ms. Palin chirping about this subject again.

The disparagement directed against the Fed from the political right has been receiving widespread publicity.  I was particularly impressed by the pummeling Senator Jim Bunning gave Ben Bernanke during the Federal Reserve Chairman’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee for Bernanke’s confirmation hearing on December 3, 2009.  Here is the most-frequently quoted portion of Bunning’s diatribe:

.   .   .   you have decided that just about every large bank, investment bank, insurance company, and even some industrial companies are too big to fail.  Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out. In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.

Michael Grunwald, author of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year 2009” cover story on Ben Bernanke, saw fit to write a sycophantic “puff piece” in support of Bernanke’s re-confirmation as Fed chairman.  In that essay, Grunwald attempted to marginalize Bernanke’s critics with this statement:

The mostly right-leaning (deficit) hawks rail about Helicopter Ben, Zimbabwe Ben and the Villain of the Year,   . . .

The “Helicopter Ben” piece was written by Larry Kudlow.  The “Zimbabwe Ben” and “Villain of the Year” essays were both written by Adrienne Gonzalez of the Jr. Deputy Accountant website, who saw her fanbase grow exponentially as a result of Grunwald’s remark.  The most amusing aspect of Grunwald’s essay in support of Bernanke’s confirmation was the argument that the chairman could be trusted to restrain his moneyprinting when confronted with demands for more monetary stimulus:

Still, doves want to know why he isn’t providing even more gas. Part of the answer is that he doesn’t seem to think that pouring more cash into the banking system would generate many jobs, because liquidity is not the current problem.  Banks already have reserves; they just aren’t using them to make loans and spur economic activity.  Bernanke thinks injecting even more money would be like pushing on a string.
*   *   *

To Bernanke, the benefits of additional monetary stimulus would be modest at best, while the costs could be disastrous. Reasonable economists can and do disagree.

Compare and contrast that Bernanke with the Bernanke who explained his rationale for more monetary stimulus in the November 4, 2010 edition of The Washington Post:

The FOMC decided this week that, with unemployment high and inflation very low, further support to the economy is needed.

*   *   *

But the Federal Reserve has a particular obligation to help promote increased employment and sustain price stability. Steps taken this week should help us fulfill that obligation.

Bernanke should have said:  “Pushing on a string should help us fulfill that obligation.”

Meanwhile, the Fed is getting thoroughly bashed from the political left, as well.  The AlterNet website ran the text of this roundtable discussion from the team at Democracy Now (Michael Hudson, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez – with a cameo appearance by Joseph Stiglitz) focused on the question of whether QE2 will launch an “economic war on the rest of the world”.  I enjoyed this opening remark by Michael Hudson:

The head of the Fed is known as “Helicopter Ben” because he talks about dropping money into the economy.  But if you see helicopters, they’re probably not your friends.  Don’t go out and wait for them to drop the money, because the money is all going electronically into the banks.

At the progressive-leaning TruthDig website, author Nomi Prins discussed the latest achievement by that unholy alliance of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve:

The Republicans may have stormed the House, but it was Wall Street and the Fed that won the election.

*   *   *

That $600 billion figure was about twice what the proverbial “analysts” on Wall Street had predicted.  This means that, adding to the current stash, the Fed will have shifted onto its books about $1 trillion of the debt that the Treasury Department has manufactured.  That’s in addition to $1.25 trillion more in various assets backed by mortgages that the Fed is keeping in its till (not including AIG and other backing) from the 2008 crisis days.  This ongoing bailout of the financial system received not a mention in pre- or postelection talk.

*   *   *

No winning Republican mentioned repealing the financial reform bill, since it doesn’t really actually reform finance, bring back Glass-Steagall, make the big banks smaller or keep them from creating complex assets for big fees.  Score one for Wall Street.  No winning Democrat thought out loud that maybe since the Republican tea partyers were so anti-bailouts they should suggest a strategy that dials back ongoing support for the banking sector as it continues to foreclose on homes, deny consumer and small business lending restructuring despite their federal windfall, and rake in trading profits.  The Democrats couldn’t suggest that, because they were complicit.  Score two for Wall Street.

In other words, nothing will change.  And that, more than the disillusionment of his supporters who had thought he would actually stand by his campaign rhetoric, is why Obama will lose the White House in 2012.

The only thing I found objectionable in Ms. Prins’ essay was her reference to “the pro-bank center”.  Since when is the political center “pro-bank”?  Don’t blame us!

As taxpayer hostility against the Fed continues to build, expect to see this book climb up the bestseller lists:  The Creature from Jekyll Island.   It’s considered the “Fedbashers’ bible”.


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Financial Crisis Inquiry Disappointment

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April 15, 2010

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) has been widely criticized for its lame efforts at investigating the causes of the financial crisis.  As I pointed out on January 11, a number of commentators had been expressing doubt concerning what the FCIC could accomplish before the commission held its first hearing.  At this point — just three months later — we are already hearing the question of whether it might be “time to pull the plug on the FCIC”.   Writing for the Center for Media and Democracy’s PRWatch.org website, Mary Bottari posed that question as the title to her critical piece, documenting the commission’s “lackluster performance”:

The FCIC is a 10-person panel assembled to report on the meltdown to President Obama later this year.  The New York Times reported last week what was becoming increasingly obvious: the commission was in shambles.  The commission waited eight months before having its first hearing.  A top investigator resigned due to delays in hiring staff, no subpoenas have been issued and partisan infighting means few new documents have been released that would aid reporters in piecing together the crime scene, even if  FCIC investigators are not up to the task.  Worse, it seems like the majority of staff  have been borrowed from the complicit Federal Reserve.

These problems were on full display in last week’s hearings.  The three days of hearings were marked by some heat, but little light.

The FCIC’s failure to issue any subpoenas became a major point of criticism by Eliot Spitzer, who had this to say in a recent posting for Slate :

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission has so far been a waste.  Some momentary theater has been provided by the witnesses who have tried to excuse, explain, or occasionally admit their role in the cataclysm of the past two years.  While this has ginned up some additional public outrage, it hasn’t deepened our knowledge about what critical players knew or did.  There is a simple reason for this:  The commission has not issued a single subpoena.  Any investigator will tell you that you must get the documentary evidence before you examine the witnesses.  The evidence is waiting to be seized from the Fed, AIG, Goldman Sachs, and on down the line.  Yet not one subpoena.

Rather than accept Robert Rubin’s simple disclaimers about Citigroup, why hasn’t the FCIC combed through the actual communications among the board, the executive committee, the audit committee, and the risk-management committee?  Why hasn’t the FCIC collected AIG’s e-mails with the Fed and Goldman Sachs?  Unless the subpoenas are issued, we will lose the chance to make the record.

As Binyamin Appelbaum pointed out in The Washington Post back on January 8, if a financial reform bill is eventually passed, it will likely be signed into law before the mid-term elections in November – one month before the FCIC is required to publish its findings.  As a result, there is a serious question as to whether the commission’s efforts will contribute anything to financial reform legislation.  Given the FCIC’s unwillingness to exercise its subpoena power, we are faced with the question of why the commission should even bother wasting its time and the taxpayers’ money on an irrelevant, ineffective exercise.

Although Mary Bottari’s essay discussed the possibility that the FCIC might still “get its act together”, the cynicism expressed by Eliot Spitzer provided a much more realistic assessment of the situation:

Americans have been betrayed by Washington over financial reform.  Our leaders have failed to get the evidence, failed to push back when clearly inadequate explanations were provided, and failed to explore the structural reforms that will work.  Pretend tears will drip from bankers’ eyes after the consumer protection agency is created.  Then their wolfish teeth will slowly break into a grin, the pure delight that Washington has failed to do anything meaningful to restructure the banking sector.

Just when it was beginning to appear as though we might actually see some meaningful financial reform find its way into law, we have been reminded that Washington has its own ways – which benefit the American public only by rare coincidence.




Plagiarism 101

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February 15, 2010

There has been plenty of excitement recently concerning the resignation of Gerald Posner from The Daily Beast as a result of a plagiarism scandal.  Here’s how Posner described it in his own words:

Last Friday, Jack Shafer in Slate ran an article pinpointing five sentences from one of my stories in The Daily Beast, which I admitted met the definition of plagiarism and I accepted full responsibility for that error, an incident I called “accidental plagiarism.”  On Monday, he had found other examples, and although I disagreed with some of his characterizations, I again accepted full accountability.

When The Daily Beast had asked me last Friday if there were any more problems than the five original sentences highlighted by Shafer, I had confidently told them, “No.”  It was not because I had subjected my own articles to so-called plagiarism software, or because I was in denial about any deliberate plagiarism.

*   *   *

This afternoon I received a call from Edward Felsenthal, the excellent managing editor of The Daily Beast.  He informed me that as part of the Beast’s internal investigation, they had uncovered more instances in earlier articles of mine in which there the same problems of apparent plagiarism as the ones originally brought to life last Friday by Shafer.  I instantly offered my resignation and Edward accepted.

This event created quite a stir in the blogosphere, where plagiarism is commonplace.  Although most bloggers follow the “fair use” standard, which allows for quoting a limited portion of published material only when identifying the original publisher of that material (attribution), a good number of bloggers are more than sloppy about it.  In the case of the Associated Press, they don’t want you quoting anything.  This is due to the nature of their business model.  There is no single publication called “The Associated Press” nor is there any single Associated Press website that runs all of its stories.  The AP makes its money by selling its stories to media outlets for republication under an AP byline.  I recently adopted a policy of simply pointing out that “Jane Doe did a story for the Associated Press concerning XYZ” with a link to the story.

Gerald Posner admitted that Jack Shafer of Slate exposed what Posner described as “accidental plagiarism”.   On February 11, Shafer responded by presenting an argument that Posner is a “serial plagiarist”.  Shafer went on to explain how plagiarism not only causes harm to the author of the poached writing — it also causes harm to the readers:

In an essay published by Media Ethics (fall 2006), Edward Wasserman attacks the wrong of plagiarism at its roots.  Most everybody concedes that plagiarism harms plagiarized writers by denying them due credit for original work.  But Wasserman delineates the harm done to readers.  By concealing the true source of information, plagiarists deny “the public insight into how key facts come to light” and undermines the efforts of other journalists and readers to assess the truth value of the (embezzled) journalistic accounts.  In Wasserman’s view, plagiarism violates the very “truth-seeking and truth-telling” mission of journalism.

From The Atlantic Wire website, John Hudson implied that Jack Shafer didn’t have any particular vendetta against Posner; Shafer was simply sticking to his mission of exposing lapses in media ethics:

Shafer has made a habit of pushing journalists to be more accurate and responsible from his post at Slate’s Press Box, a column devoted to media criticism.  Voices like his are increasingly crucial as journalistic mores shift, with Shafer both demonstrating and explaining how Web writing can work.

Nothing beats a good scandal — but when the scandal involves a scandal-breaker, there seems to be a bit of karma happening.

At the ScienceBlogs website, Razib Kahn characterized the Posner situation as more a problem of being pathologically dumb than being a pathological plagiarist:

The Ben Domenech case actually shows that yes, internet-age plagiarists can be pathologically dumb.  There are plenty of cases of small-time plagiarists; my friend Randall Parker of FuturePundit was pointed to another blogger who was copying his posts almost verbatim.  Small potatoes.  But if you’re a professional journalist, you’re going to get caught if you have any prominence if people can compare the text on the internet.

I think catching people plagiarizing like this is a good sign that there are some mental peculiarities at work here; cognitive biases if you will.  This isn’t cheating on college papers, unethical as it is, this is being unethical for short-term gains when there’s a very high probability that you’ll be caught and humiliated in public in the long-term.

Being called unethical is something that Posner had probably been expecting — but being called dumb has to really hurt!



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Searching For A Port In A Storm Of Bad Behavior

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August 20, 2009

Since I began complaining about manipulation of the stock markets back on December 18, I’ve been comforted by the fact that a number of bloggers have voiced similar concerns.  At such websites as Naked Capitalism, Zero Hedge, The Market Ticker and others too numerous to mention —  a common theme keeps popping up:  some portion of the extraordinary amounts of money disseminated by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve is obviously being used to manipulate the equities markets.  One paper, released by Precision Capital Management, analyzed the correlation between those days when the Federal Reserve bought back Treasury securities from investment banks and “tape painting” during the final minutes of those trading days on the stock markets.

Eliot “Socks” Spitzer recently wrote a piece for Slate, warning the “small investor” about a “rigged” system, as well as the additional hazards encountered due to routine breaches of the fiduciary duties owed by investment firms to their clients:

Recent rebounds notwithstanding, most people now are asking whether the system is fundamentally rigged.  It’s not just that they have an understandable aversion to losing their life savings when the market crashes; it’s that each of the scandals and crises has a common pattern:  The small investor was taken advantage of by the piranhas that hide in the rapidly moving currents. And underlying this pattern is a simple theme: conflicts of interest that violated the duty the market players had to their supposed clients.

The natural reaction of the retail investor to these hazards and scandals often involves seeking refuge in professionally-managed mutual funds.  Nevertheless, as Spitzer pointed out, the mutual fund alternative has dangers of its own:

Mutual funds charge exorbitant fees that investors have to absorb — fees that dramatically reduce any possibility of outperforming the market and that are set by captive boards of captive management companies, not one of which has been replaced for inadequate performance, violating their duty to guard the interests of the fund investors for whom they supposedly work.

Worse yet, is the fact that mutual funds are now increasing their fees and, in effect, punishing their customers for the poor performance of those funds during the past year.  Financial planner Allan Roth, had this to say at CBS MoneyWatch.com:

After one of the most awful years in the history of the mutual fund industry, when the average U.S. stock fund and international fund fell by 39 percent and 46 percent respectively, you might expect fund companies would give investors a break and lower their fees. But just the opposite is true.

An exclusive analysis for MoneyWatch.com by investment research firm Morningstar shows that over the past year, fund fees have risen in nearly every category.  For stock funds, the fees shot up by roughly 5 percent.

*   *   *

Every penny you pay in fees, of course, lowers your return.  In fact, my research indicates that each additional 0.25 percent in annual fees pushes back your financial independence goal by a year.

What’s more, the only factor that is predictive of a fund’s relative performance against similar funds is fees.  A low-cost domestic stock fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund, just as a low-cost bond fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund.   . . .  As fund fees increase, performance decreases.  In fact, fees explained nearly 60 percent of the U.S. stock fund family performance ratings given by Morningstar.  Numerous studies done to predict mutual fund performance indicate that neither the Morningstar rating nor the track record of the fund manager were indicative of future performance.

Another questionable practice in the mutual fund industry — the hiring of “rookies” to manage the funds — was recently placed under the spotlight by Ken Kam for the MSN TopStocks blog:

In this market, it’s going to take skill to make back last year’s losses.  After a 40% loss, it takes a 67% gain just to get back to even. You would think that mutual funds would put their most experienced managers and analysts to work right now.  But according to Morningstar, the managers of 28 out of 48 unique healthcare funds, almost 60%, (see data) have less than five years with their fund.  I think you need to see at least a five-year track record before you can even begin to judge a manager’s worth.

I’m willing to pay for good management that will do something to protect me if the market crashes again.  But I want to see some evidence that I am getting a good manager before I trust them with my money.  I want to see at least a five-year track record.  If I paid for good management and I got a rookie manager with no track record instead, I would be more than a little upset.

Beyond that, John Authers of Morningstar recently wrote an article for the Financial Times, explaining that investors will obtain better results investing in a stock index fund, rather than an “actively managed” equity mutual fund, whether or not that manager is a rookie:

For decades, retail savers have invested in stocks via mutual funds that are actively managed to try to beat an index.  The funds hold about 100 stocks, and can raise or lower their cash holdings, but cannot bet on stocks to go down by selling them short.

This model has, it appears, been savaged by a flock of sheep.

Index investing, which cuts costs by replicating an index rather than trying to beat it, has been gaining in popularity.

Active managers argued that they could raise cash, or move to defensive stocks, in a downturn.  Passive funds would track their index over the edge of the cliff.

But active managers, in aggregate, failed to do better than their indices in 2008.

So …  if you have become too frustrated to continue investing in stocks, be mindful of the fact that equity-based mutual funds have problems of their own.

As for other alternatives:  Ian Wyatt recently wrote a favorable piece about the advantages of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for  SmallCapInvestor.com.  Nevertheless, if the stocks comprising those ETFs (and the ETFs themselves) are being traded in a “rigged” market, you’re back to square one.  Happy investing!

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