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© 2008 – 2017 John T. Burke, Jr.

Plutocracy Is Crushing Democracy

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It’s been happening here in the United States since onset of the 2008 financial crisis.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  One year ago, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

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As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.

As it turns out, a few of those same banks are flexing their muscles overseas as the European debt crisis poses a new threat to Goldman Sachs and several of its ridiculously-overleveraged European counterparts.  Time recently published an essay by Stephan Faris, which raised the question of whether the regime changes in Greece and Italy amounted to a “bankers’ coup”:

As in Athens, the plan in Rome is to replace the outgoing prime minister with somebody from outside the political class.  Mario Monti, a neo-liberal economist and former EU commissioner who seems designed with the idea of calming the markets in mind, is expected to take over from Berlusconi after he resigns Saturday.

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Yet, until the moment he’s sworn in, Monti’s ascension is far from a done deal, and it didn’t take long after the markets had closed for the weekend for it to start to come under fire.  Though Monti, a former advisor to Goldman Sachs, is heavily championed by the country’s respected president, many in parliament have spent the week whispering that Berlusconi’s ouster amounts to a “banker’s coup.”  “Yesterday, in the chamber of deputies we were bitterly joking that we were going to get a Goldman Sachs government,” says a parliamentarian from Berlusconi’s government, who asked to remain anonymous citing political sensitivity.

At The New York Times, Ross Douthat reflected on the drastic policy of bypassing democracy to install governments led by “technocrats”:

After the current crisis has passed, some voices have suggested, there will be time to reverse the ongoing centralization of power and reconsider the E.U.’s increasingly undemocratic character. Today the Continent needs a unified fiscal policy and a central bank that’s willing to behave like the Federal Reserve, Bloomberg View’s Clive Crook has suggested.  But as soon as the euro is stabilized, Europe’s leaders should start “giving popular sovereignty some voice in other aspects of the E.U. project.”

This seems like wishful thinking.  Major political consolidations are rarely undone swiftly, and they just as often build upon themselves.  The technocratic coups in Greece and Italy have revealed the power that the E.U.’s leadership can exercise over the internal politics of member states.  If Germany has to effectively backstop the Continent’s debt in order to save the European project, it’s hard to see why the Frankfurt Group (its German members, especially) would ever consent to dilute that power.

Reacting to Ross Douthat’s column, economist Brad DeLong was quick to criticize the use of the term “technocrats”.  That same label appeared in the previously-quoted Time article, as well:

Those who are calling the shots in Europe right now are in no wise “technocrats”:  technocrats would raise the target inflation rate in the eurozone and buy up huge amounts of Greek and Italian (and other) debt conditional on the enactment of special euro-wide long-run Fiscal Stabilization Repayment Fund taxes. These aren’t technocrats:  they are ideologues – and rather blinders-wearing ideologues at that.

Forget about euphemisms such as:  “technocrats”, “the European Union” or “the European Central Bank”.  Stephen Foley of The Independent pulled back the curtain and revealed the real culprit  .  .  .  Goldman Sachs:

This is the most remarkable thing of all:  a giant leap forward for, or perhaps even the successful culmination of, the Goldman Sachs Project.

It is not just Mr Monti.  The European Central Bank, another crucial player in the sovereign debt drama, is under ex-Goldman management, and the investment bank’s alumni hold sway in the corridors of power in almost every European nation, as they have done in the US throughout the financial crisis.  Until Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund’s European division was also run by a Goldman man, Antonio Borges, who just resigned for personal reasons.

Even before the upheaval in Italy, there was no sign of Goldman Sachs living down its nickname as “the Vampire Squid”, and now that its tentacles reach to the top of the eurozone, sceptical voices are raising questions over its influence.

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This is The Goldman Sachs Project.  Put simply, it is to hug governments close.  Every business wants to advance its interests with the regulators that can stymie them and the politicians who can give them a tax break, but this is no mere lobbying effort.  Goldman is there to provide advice for governments and to provide financing, to send its people into public service and to dangle lucrative jobs in front of people coming out of government.  The Project is to create such a deep exchange of people and ideas and money that it is impossible to tell the difference between the public interest and the Goldman Sachs interest.

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The grave danger is that, if Italy stops paying its debts, creditor banks could be made insolvent.  Goldman Sachs, which has written over $2trn of insurance, including an undisclosed amount on eurozone countries’ debt, would not escape unharmed, especially if some of the $2trn of insurance it has purchased on that insurance turns out to be with a bank that has gone under.  No bank – and especially not the Vampire Squid – can easily untangle its tentacles from the tentacles of its peers. This is the rationale for the bailouts and the austerity, the reason we are getting more Goldman, not less.  The alternative is a second financial crisis, a second economic collapse.

The previous paragraph explains precisely what the term “too-big-to-fail” is all about:  If a bank of that size fails – it can bring down the entire economy.  Beyond that, the Goldman situation illustrates what Simon Johnson meant when he explained that the United States – acting alone – cannot prevent the megabanks from becoming too big to fail.  Any attempt to regulate the size of those institutions requires an international effort:

But no international body — not the Group of -20, the Group of Eight or anyone else — shows any indication of taking this on, mostly because governments don’t wish to tie their own hands. In a severe crisis, the interests of the state are usually paramount. No meaningful cross-border resolution framework is even in the cards.  (Disclosure:  I’m on the FDIC’s Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee; I’m telling you what I tell them at every opportunity.)

What we are left with is a situation wherein the taxpayers are the insurers of the privileged elite, who invest in banks managed by greedy, reckless megalomaniacs.  When those plutocrats are faced with the risk of losing money – then democracy be damned!  Contempt for democracy is apparently a component of the mindset afflicting the “supply side economics” crowd.  Creepy Stephen Moore, of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, has expounded on his belief that capitalism is more important than Democracy.  We are now witnessing how widespread that warped value system is.


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Debunking Oil Industry Propaganda

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The political crisis in Egypt is being used by tools of the oil industry to – once again – put the scare into people about our dependence on “foreign oil”.  Stephen Moore was on Fox News talking-up the old “drill baby, drill” sentiment on February 2, lamenting our lack of “energy independence”.  I just wish Moore would restrict himself to a diet of Gulf shrimp.  I doubt whether it would change his mind, although it might make him more fun to watch on television as the hydrocarbons gradually work their karmic magic.

The myth of “foreign oil” is one of my pet peeves for several reasons – not the least of which is the fact that the one foreign oil company, which has done the most harm to the United States is British Petroleum, rather than some enterprise from the Middle East.

Much as been written to dispel the myths of “foreign oil” and “energy independence”, although the spokestools of the oil industry do all they can to pretend as though such information does not exist.  Take for example, the essay written by David Saied for the Ludwig von Mises Institute entitled “America’s Economic Myths”, wherein he debunked the myth of “dependence on foreign oil”:

This myth basically suggests that the problem with oil prices is due to America’s “dependence” on foreign oil.  One of the worst economic myths, it plays on economic nationalism and on xenophobic feelings that are sometimes pervasive in the United States.

The high price of oil has nothing to do with its origin; the price of oil is determined in international markets.  Even if the United States were to produce 100% of the oil it consumes, the price would be the same if the worldwide supply and demand of oil were to remain the same.  Oil is a commodity, so the price of a barrel produced in the United States is basically the same as the price of a barrel of oil produced in any other country, but the costs of labor, land, and regulatory compliance are usually higher in the United States than in third-world countries.  Lowering these costs would help increase supply.  Increasing supply, whether in the United States or elsewhere, will push prices lower.

Importing a product does not mean you “depend” on it.  This is like saying that when we “import” food from our local supermarket we “depend” on that supermarket.  The opposite is usually true; exporters depend on us, since we are the customers.  Also, importing a product usually means buying at lower prices, whereas producing in the United States often means consuming at higher prices.  This point is proven when we see the cheap imports we can purchase from China and the higher prices of many of these same products manufactured in the United States.  The amazing thing is that the protectionists claim, on the one hand, that America should be “protected” from cheap imports, but when it comes to oil, they say we should be “protected” from “expensive imported” oil.

Most, if not all, of the higher price of oil can be explained by the expansion of the money supply or the debasement of the dollar.  The foreign producers are not at fault; our national central bank is the culprit.

As a fan of the Real Clear Markets section of the Real Clear Politics website, I was pleased to see this recent commentary by John Tamny, wherein he had a good laugh at T-Bone Pickings for accidentally revealing the absurdity of the “energy independence” meme:

As this column has shown more than once, the price of a barrel of crude tends to revert to 1/15th of an ounce of gold, and as of Tuesday, oil’s price increase merely brought it in line with its historical cost.

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Oil is oil is oil, and it’s a commodity whose price is discovered in deep world markets.

Canada is seemingly “energy independent”, but assuming ongoing Middle East uncertainty, its citizens will – like us – buy gasoline the price of which is based on the cost per barrel set in global markets.  Much as we might like to naively fantasize about walling ourselves off from international market realities, we’ll never be immune to the activities around the world that impact oil’s price.  Canada and its citizens won’t be either.

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So while we can expect lots of breathy commentary about the need for energy independence in the coming weeks, particularly if Middle East unrest spreads, cooler heads will hopefully prevail.  The false God of independence will not wall us off from supply-driven increases, and more important, the waste of  human and financial capital necessary to achieve the silly notion would be far more economically crippling than any presumed supply shock could ever hope to be.

My own dream of “energy independence” involves owning an electric car, which I can recharge with a “solar power station” similar to what we see advertised on television – along with another “solar power station” to provide my home electricity.  “Energy independence” can only be achieved when American consumers are liberated from the tyranny of the oil companies and the power utilities.


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Democrats Share The Blame

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January 21 brought us Episode 199 of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  At the end of the program, Bill went through his popular “New Rules” segment.  On this occasion, he wound it up with a rant about how the Republicans were exclusively at fault for the financial crisis.  Aside from the fact that this claim was historically inaccurate, it was not at all fair to David Stockman (a guest on that night’s show) who had to sit through Maher’s diatribe without an opportunity to point out the errors.  (On the other hand, I was fine with watching Stephen Moore twist in the wind as Maher went through that tirade.)

That incident underscored the obvious need for Bill Maher to invite William Black as a guest on the show in order to clarify this issue.  Prior to that episode, Black had written an essay, which appeared on The Big Picture website.  Although the theme of that piece was to debunk the “mantra of the Republican Party” that “regulation is a job killer”, Black emphasized that Democrats had a role in “deregulation, desupervision, and de facto decriminalization (the three ‘des’)” which created the “criminogenic environment” precipitating the financial crisis:

The Great Recession was triggered by the collapse of the real estate bubble epidemic of mortgage fraud by lenders that hyper-inflated that bubble.  That epidemic could not have happened without the appointment of anti-regulators to key leadership positions.  The epidemic of mortgage fraud was centered on loans that the lending industry (behind closed doors) referred to as “liar’s” loans — so any regulatory leader who was not an anti-regulatory ideologue would (as we did in the early 1990s during the first wave of liar’s loans in California) have ordered banks not to make these pervasively fraudulent loans.

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From roughly 1999 to the present, three administrations have displayed hostility to vigorous regulation and have appointed regulatory leaders largely on the basis of their opposition to vigorous regulation.  When these administrations occasionally blundered and appointed, or inherited, regulatory leaders that believed in regulating, the administration attacked the regulators.  In the financial regulatory sphere, recent examples include Arthur Levitt and William Donaldson (SEC), Brooksley Born (CFTC), and Sheila Bair (FDIC).

Similarly, the bankers used Congress to extort the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) into trashing the accounting rules so that the banks no longer had to recognize their losses.  The twin purposes of that bit of successful thuggery were to evade the mandate of the Prompt Corrective Action (PCA) law and to allow banks to pretend that they were solvent and profitable so that they could continue to pay enormous bonuses to their senior officials based on the fictional “income” and “net worth” produced by the scam accounting.  (Not recognizing one’s losses increases dollar-for-dollar reported, but fictional, net worth and gross income.)

When members of Congress (mostly Democrats) sought to intimidate us into not taking enforcement actions against the fraudulent S&Ls we blew the whistle.

President Obama’s January 18 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal prompted a retort from Bill Black.  The President announced that he had signed an executive order requiring “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive”.  Obama’s focus on “regulations that stifle job creation” seemed to exemplify what Black had just discussed one day earlier.  Accordingly, Bill Black wrote an essay for The Huffington Post on January 19, which began this way:

I get President Obama’s “regulatory review” plan, I really do.  His game plan is a straight steal from President Clinton’s strategy after the Republican’s 1994 congressional triumph. Clinton’s strategy was to steal the Republican Party’s play book.  I know that Clinton’s strategy was considered brilliant politics (particularly by the Clintonites), but the Republican financial playbook produces recurrent, intensifying fraud epidemics and financial crises.  Rubin and Summers were Clinton’s offensive coordinators.  They planned and implemented the Republican game plan on finance.  Rubin and Summers were good choices for this role because they were, and remain, reflexively anti-regulatory.  They led the deregulation and attack on supervision that began to create the criminogenic environment that produced the financial crisis.

Bill Clinton’s role in facilitating the financial crisis would have surely become an issue in the 2008 Presidential election campaign, had Hillary Clinton been the Democratic nominee.  Instead, the Democrats got behind a “Trojan horse” candidate, disguised in the trappings of  “Change” who, once elected, re-installed the very people who implemented the crucial deregulatory changes which caused the financial crisis.  Bill Black provided this explanation:

The zeal, crude threats, and arrogance they displayed in leading the attacks on SEC Chair Levitt and CFTC Chair Born’s efforts to adopt regulations that would have reduced the risks of fraud and financial crises were exceptional.  Just one problem — they were wrong and Levitt and Born were right.  Rubin and Summers weren’t slightly wrong; they put us on the path to the Great Recession.  Obama knows that Clinton’s brilliant political strategy, stealing the Republican play book, was a disaster for the nation, but he has picked politics over substance.

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Obama’s proposal and the accompanying OMB releases do not mention the word or the concept of fraud.  Despite an “epidemic” of fraud led by the bank CEOs (which caused the greatest crisis of his life), Obama cannot bring itself to use the “f” word. The administration wants the banks’ senior officers to fund its reelection campaign.  I’ve never raised political contributions, but I’m certain that pointing out that a large number of senior bank officers were frauds would make fundraising from them awkward.

Black targeted Obama’s lame gesture toward acknowledgement of some need for regulation, encapsulated in the statement that “(w)here necessary, we won’t shy away from addressing obvious gaps …”:

Huh?  The vital task is to find the non-obvious gaps.  Why, two years into his presidency, has the administration failed to address “obvious gaps”?  The administration does not need Republican approval to fill obvious gaps in regulation.  Even when Obama finds “obvious gaps” in regulatory protection he does not promise to act.  He will act only “where necessary.”  We know that Summers, Rubin, and Geithner rarely believe that financial regulation is “necessary.”  Even if Obama decides it is “necessary” to act he only promises to “address” “obvious gaps” — not “end” or “fill” them.

At the conclusion of his Huffington Post essay, Black provided his own list of  “obvious gaps” described as the “Dirty Dozen”  —  “. . .  obvious gaps in financial regulation which have persisted and grown during this, Obama’s first two years in office.”

Bill Black is just one of many commentators to annotate the complicity of Democrats in causing the financial crisis.  Beyond that, Black has illustrated how President Obama has preserved – and possibly enhanced — the “criminogenic” milieu which could bring about another financial crisis.

The first step toward implementing “bipartisan solutions” to our nation’s ills should involve acknowledging the extent to which the fault for those problems is bipartisan.


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