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Struggles of a Passive Centrist

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In September of 2010, I wrote a piece entitled, “Where Obama Went Wrong”.  It began with this statement:  “One could write an 800-page book on this subject.”  Noam Scheiber has just written that book in only 368 pages.  It’s called The Escape Artists and it is scheduled for release at the end of this month.  The book tells the tale of a President in a struggle to create a centrist persona, with no roadmap of his own.  In fact, it was Obama’s decision to follow the advice of Peter Orszag, to the exclusion of the opinions offered by Christina Romer and Larry Summers – which prolonged the unemployment crisis.

The following graph from The Economic Populist website depicts the persistence of unemployment in America:

Noam Scheiber’s new book piqued my interest because, back in July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled “The Second Stimulus”, which began with this thought:

It’s a subject that many people are talking about, but not many politicians want to discuss.  It appears as though a second economic stimulus package will be necessary to save our sinking economy and get people back to work.  Because of the huge deficits already incurred in responding to the financial meltdown, along with the $787 billion price tag for the first stimulus package and because of the President’s promise to get healthcare reform enacted, there aren’t many in Congress who are willing to touch this subject right now, although some are.

The Escape Artists takes us back to the pivotal year of 2009 – Obama’s first year in the White House.  Noam Scheiber provided us with a taste of his new book by way of an article published in The New Republic entitled, “Obama’s Worst Year”.  Scheiber gave the reader an insider’s look at Obama’s clueless indecision at the fork in the road between deficit hawkishness vs. economic stimulus.  Ultimately Obama decided to maintain the illusion of centrism by following the austerity program suggested by Peter Orszag:

BACK IN THE SUMMER of 2009, David Axelrod, the president’s top political aide, was peppering White House economist Christina Romer with questions in preparation for a talk-show appearance.  With unemployment nearing 10 percent, many commentators on the left were second-guessing the size of the original stimulus, and so Axelrod asked if it had been big enough.  “Abso-fucking-lutely not,” Romer responded.  She said it half-jokingly, but the joke was that she would use the line on television.  She was dead serious about the sentiment.  Axelrod did not seem amused.

For Romer, the crusade was a lonely one.  While she believed the economy needed another boost in order to recover, many in the administration were insisting on cuts.  The chief proponent of this view was budget director Peter Orszag.  Worried that the deficit was undermining the confidence of businessmen, Orszag lobbied to pare down the budget in August, six months ahead of the usual budget schedule.      .   .   .

The debate was not only a question of policy.  It was also about governing style – and, in a sense, about the very nature of the Obama presidency.  Pitching a deficit-reduction plan would be a concession to critics on the right, who argued that the original stimulus and the health care bill amounted to liberal overreach.  It would be premised on the notion that bipartisan compromise on a major issue was still possible.  A play for more stimulus, on the other hand, would be a defiant action, and Obama clearly recognized this.  When Romer later urged him to double-down, he groused, “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”

That’s a fine example of great leadership – isn’t it?  “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”  In 2009, the fierce urgency of the unemployment and economic crises demanded a leader who would not feel intimidated by the sheeple’s erroneous belief that the Economic Recovery Act had not “worked”.  Obama could have educated the American people by directing their attention to a June 3, 2009 essay by Keith Hennessey (former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush) which described the Recovery Act as “effective”.

Noam Scheiber’s New Republic article detailed Obama’s evolution from inexperienced negotiator to President with “newfound boldness”:

FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS, Obama had been hatching proposals with an eye toward winning over the opposition.  In most cases, all it had gotten him was more extreme demands from Republicans and not even a pretense of bipartisan support.  Now, after the searing experience of the deficit deal, he still wanted reasonable, centrist policies.  But he was done trying to fit them to the ever-shifting conservative zeitgeist.  When he finally turned back to jobs in August, he told his aides not to “self-edit” proposals to improve their chances of passing the Republican House.  “He pushed us to make sure this was not simply a predesigned legislative compromise,” one recalls.

Many readers will be surprised to learn that Larry Summers had aligned himself with Christina Romer by advocating for additional fiscal stimulus during the summer of 2009.  In fact, Ms. Romer herself has already confirmed this.  The Romer-Summers alliance for stimulus was also discussed in Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men.

As for the stimulus program itself, a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? provided the most even-handed analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.  Mike Grabell gave us a glimpse of his new book with an article which appeared in The New York Times.  The piece was cross-posted to the ProPublica website.  Keith Hennesssey’s prescient observations about the shortcomings of that program, which he discussed  in June of 2009, were somewhat consistent with those discussed by Mike Grabell, particularly on the subject of “shovel-ready” programs.  Here is what Keith Hennessey said, while supporting his argument with the observations of Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf:

In fact, the infrastructure spending in the stimulus law will peak in fiscal year 2011, which goes from October 1, 2010 to September 30, 2011.  That’s too late from a macro perspective.

The Director further points out that the 2009 stimulus law created many new programs.  This slows spend-out, as it takes time to create and ramp up the new programs.

The Administration has made much of working with federal and state bureaucracies to find “shovel-ready” projects to accelerate infrastructure spending.  All of my conversations with budget analysts suggest this claim is tremendously overblown, and Director Elmendorf asks, “Is this practical on a large scale?”

On February 11, 2012, Mike Grabell said this:

But the stimulus ultimately failed to bring about a strong, sustainable recovery.  Money was spread far and wide rather than dedicated to programs with the most bang for the buck.  “Shovel-ready” projects, those that would put people to work right away, took too long to break ground.  Investments in worthwhile long-term projects, on the other hand, were often rushed to meet arbitrary deadlines, and the resulting shoddy outcomes tarnished the projects’ image.

The Economic Recovery Act of 2009 will surely become a central subject of debate during the current Presidential election campaign.  Regardless of what you hear from partisan bloviators, Messrs. Hennessey and Garbell have provided you with reliable guides to the unvarnished truth on this subject.



 

Be Sure To Catch These Items

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As we reach the end of 2011, I keep stumbling across loads of important blog postings which deserve more attention.  These pieces aren’t really concerned with the usual, “year in review”- type of subject matter.  They are simply great items which could get overlooked by people who are too busy during this time of year to set aside the time to browse around for interesting reads.  Accordingly, I’d like to bring a few of these to your attention.

The entire European economy is on its way to hell, thanks to an idiotic, widespread belief that economic austerity measures will serve as a panacea for the sovereign debt crisis.  The increasing obviousness of the harm caused by austerity has motivated its proponents to crank-up the “John Maynard Keynes was wrong” propaganda machine.  You don’t have to look very far to find examples of that stuff.  On any given day, the Real Clear Politics (or Real Clear Markets) website is likely to be listing at least one link to such a piece.  Those commentators are simply trying to take advantage of the fact that President Obama botched the 2009 economic stimulus effort.  Many of us realized – a long time ago – that Obama’s stimulus measures would prove to be inadequate.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I pointed out that another stimulus program would be necessary because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was not going to accomplish its intended objective.  Beyond that, it was already becoming apparent that the stimulus program would eventually be used to support the claim that Keynesian economics doesn’t work.  Economist Stephanie Kelton anticipated that tactic in a piece she published at the New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

Despite the current “ridicule and scorn” campaign against Keynesian economics, a fantastic, unbiased analysis of the subject has been provided by Henry Blodget of The Business Insider.  Blodget’s commentary was written in easy-to-read, layman’s terms and I can’t say enough good things about it.  Here’s an example:

The reason austerity doesn’t work to quickly fix the problem is that, when the economy is already struggling, and you cut government spending, you also further damage the economy. And when you further damage the economy, you further reduce tax revenue, which has already been clobbered by the stumbling economy.  And when you further reduce tax revenue, you increase the deficit and create the need for more austerity.  And that even further clobbers the economy and tax revenue.  And so on.

Another “must read” blog posting was provided by Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish).  Mish directed our attention to a rather extensive list of “Things to Say Goodbye To”, which was written last year by Clark McClelland and appeared on Jeff Rense’s website.  (Clark McClelland is a retired NASA aerospace engineer who has an interesting background.  I encourage you to explore McClelland’s website.)  Mish pared McClelland’s list down to nine items and included one of his own – loss of free speech:

A bill in Congress with an innocuous title – Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – threatens to do much more.

*  *  *

This bill’s real intent is not to stop piracy, but rather to hand over control of the internet to corporations.

At his Financial Armageddon blog, Michael Panzner took a similar approach toward slimming down a list of bullet points which reveal the disastrous state of our economy:  “50 Economic Numbers From 2011 That Are Almost Too Crazy To Believe,” from the Economic Collapse blog.  Panzner’s list was narrowed down to ten items – plenty enough to undermine those “sunshine and rainbows” prognostications about what we can expect during 2012.

The final item on my list of “must read” essays is a rebuttal to that often-repeated big lie that “no laws were broken” by the banksters who caused the financial crisis.  Bill Black is an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the Department of Economics and the School of Law.  Black directed litigation for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB) from 1984 to 1986 and served as deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) in 1987.  Black’s refutation of the “no laws were broken by the financial crisis banksters” meme led up to a clever homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy describing the “ten circles of hell” based on “the scale of ethical depravity by the frauds that drove the ongoing crisis”.  Here is Black’s retort to the big lie:

Sixty Minutes’ December 11, 2011 interview of President Obama included a claim by Obama that, unfortunately, did not lead the interviewer to ask the obvious, essential follow-up questions.

I can tell you, just from 40,000 feet, that some of the most damaging behavior on Wall Street, in some cases, some of the least ethical behavior on Wall Street, wasn’t illegal.

*   *   *

I offer the following scale of unethical banker behavior related to fraudulent mortgages and mortgage paper (principally collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)) that is illegal and deserved punishment.  I write to prompt the rigorous analytical discussion that is essential to expose and end Obama and Bush’s “Presidential Amnesty for Contributors” (PAC) doctrine.  The financial industry is the leading campaign contributor to both parties and those contributions come overwhelmingly from the wealthiest officers – the one-tenth of one percent that thrives by being parasites on the 99 percent.

I have explained at length in my blogs and articles why:

• Only fraudulent home lenders made liar’s loans
• Liar’s loans were endemically fraudulent
• Lenders and their agents put the lies in liar’s loans
• Appraisal fraud was endemic and led by lenders and their agents
• Liar’s loans could only be sold through fraudulent reps and warranties
• CDOs “backed” by liar’s loans were inherently fraudulent
• CDOs backed by liar’s loans could only be sold through fraudulent reps and warranties
• Liar’s loans hyper-inflated the bubble
• Liar’s loans became roughly one-third of mortgage originations by 2006

Each of these frauds is a conventional fraud that could be prosecuted under existing laws.

It’s nice to see someone finally take a stand against the “Presidential Amnesty for Contributors” (PAC) doctrine.  Every time Obama attempts to invoke that doctrine – he should be called on it.  The Apologist-In-Chief needs to learn that the voters are not as stupid as he thinks they are.


 

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The Wrong Playbook

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President Obama is still getting it wrong.  Nevertheless, we keep hearing that he is such a clever politician.  Count me among those who believe that the Republicans are setting Obama up for failure and a loss to whatever goofball happens to win the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012 – solely because of a deteriorating economy.  Obama had the chance to really save the economy and “right the ship”.  When he had the opportunity to confront the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama violated Rahm Emanuel’s infamous doctrine, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.  The new President immediately made a point of squandering the opportunity to overcome that crisis.  I voiced my frustration about this on October 7, 2010:

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

In September of 2009, I discussed a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  In analyzing Australia’s approach to the financial crisis, economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

On October 6, 2010, Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Workers in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile, America’s jobless rate has been hovering around 9 percent and the Federal Reserve found it necessary to print-up another $600 billion for a controversial second round of quantitative easing.  If that $600 billion had been used for the 2009 economic stimulus (and if the stimulus program had been more infrastructure-oriented) we would probably have enjoyed a result closer to that experienced by Australia.  Instead, President Obama chose to follow Japan’s strategy of perpetual bank bailouts (by way of the Fed’s “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP and multiple rounds of quantitative easing), sending America’s economy into our own “lost decade”.

The only member of the Clinton administration who deserves Obama’s ear is being ignored.  Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has been repeatedly emphasizing that President Obama is making a huge mistake by attempting to follow the Clinton playbook:

Many of President Obama’s current aides worked for Clinton and vividly recall Clinton’s own midterm shellacking in 1994 and his re-election two years later – and they think the president should follow Clinton’s script. Obama should distance himself from congressional Democrats, embrace deficit reduction and seek guidance from big business.  They assume that because triangulation worked for Clinton, it will work for Obama.

They’re wrong.  Clinton’s shift to the right didn’t win him re-election in 1996. He was re-elected because of the strength of the economic recovery.

By the spring of 1995, the American economy already had bounced back, averaging 200,000 new jobs per month.  By early 1996, it was roaring – creating 434,000 new jobs in February alone.

Obama’s 2011 reality has us losing nearly 400,000 jobs per month.  Nevertheless, there is this misguided belief that the “wealth effect” caused by inflated stock prices and the current asset bubble will somehow make the Clinton strategy relevant.  It won’t.  Instead, President Obama will adopt a strategy of “austerity lite”, which will send America into a second recession dip and alienate voters just in time for the 2012 elections.  Professor Reich recently warned of this:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

If inviting a double-dip recession weren’t dumb enough – how about a second financial crisis?  Just add more systemic risk and presto! The banks won’t have any problems because the Fed and the Treasury will provide another round of bailouts.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns recently wrote an essay focused on Treasury Secretary Geithner’s belief that we need big banks to be even bigger.

Even if the Republicans nominate a Presidential candidate who espouses a strategy of simply relying on Jesus to extinguish fires at offshore oil rigs and nuclear reactors – Obama will still lose.  May God help us!


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Post-Free-Market Reality

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The problem became obvious at the onset of the financial crisis.  All of the huffing and puffing about our glorious Free Market system was a big lie.  Once the credit bubble had burst, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson went into panic mode – his eyes bulging outward even more than normal.  During that fateful week of September 15 2008, Paulson had 24 telephone conversations with Lloyd Blankfein, his successor CEO at Goldman Sachs.  AIG had to get bailed out at taxpayer expense.  From across the pond, the reaction was immediate.  On September 18 2008, Philip Broughton wrote an article for the Daily Mail entitled, “Free-market capitalism lies shredded … while America’s confidence is badly shaken”.  Near the outset of the piece, Broughton chronicled the ugly truth:

For years now, we have had to listen to bankers attacking Washington for imposing regulations that inhibit the free markets from making even more money.

And all the while, they took exorbitant salaries, justifying them on the grounds of their huge contribution to capitalism.

How bitterly ironic it is, then, to see these one-time freemarketeers becoming socialists overnight.

The schoolyard bullies of Wall Street have gone running to the state for help, pleading to be saved from destruction.

They deserve neither our sympathy nor the billions in taxpayer support they are now receiving.

That theme has been reverberating through commentaries ever since.

A year later, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch provided an overview of writings by Jack Bogle, Marc Faber and Thomas Moore to support his contention that “America’s Soul of Capitalism” has been lost:

You know something’s very wrong:  A year ago, too-greedy-to-fail banks were insolvent, in a near-death experience.  Now, magically, they’re back to business as usual, arrogant, pocketing outrageous bonuses while Main Street sacrifices, and unemployment and foreclosures continue rising as tight credit, inflation and skyrocketing federal debt are killing taxpayers.

Down in Australia, The Propitious Manager wrote an essay on April 4 2010, expressing his amazement that America was having so much trouble trying to stomach the idea of government-backed healthcare:

When you read President O’bama’s healthcare plan the most striking message is the failure of a free market to provide for the community. The healthcare market in the US, left unfettered to run free, just crashes into a heap of mismanagement, inefficiency and opportunism (hold on – isn’t this a familiar story).  I’ll leave you to read the script – but it isn’t a pretty picture.

*   *   *

What I like to call post free market economies, are about identifying the markets which are essential to maintaining thriving people and communities and develop the frameworks which optimize their performance.  Some require complete freedom while others require varying degrees of framework from elected governments.  Developing an increasingly sophisticated community and social framework is really the challenge of the century.  One where it doesn’t matter whether your a rubbish collector or a billionaire – if you get sick, someone will care for you and if you invest your money it will be there when you wake up in the morning.

The idea that we are now living in a post-free-market economy presents itself in a recent commentary by Veronique de Rugy for Bloomberg News, entitled “Why Businesses Can’t Stand Free Markets”.  Ms. De Rugy discussed how businesses exploit regulatory capture and use lobbyists to obtain favorable laws and regulations in order to stifle competition at the expense of consumers.  She concluded with this thought:

Let’s hope that any court ruling deals a blow to the practice of entrenched businesses using government to impose higher costs on consumers while also thwarting upstart entrepreneurs.  No one said loving free markets was easy.

On the other hand, there are many “upstart entrepreneurs” seeking government assistance to circumvent obstacles existing in the free-market system.  This has become especially apparent in the burgeoning solar power industry, where American upstarts are attempting to compete with entities which obtain government financing – not only in China but in the eurozone as well.  Martin LaMonica recently discussed this problem in an article for CNET:

Before the financial crisis, solar challengers were able to build manufacturing facilities using private money–venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds.  These sources still exist, but private investors are being pickier about how they place their bets, said Ted Sullivan, solar analyst at Lux Research.

Raising money on the public markets with an initial public offering was possible a few years ago, too, but is very difficult now, said Ethan Zindler, head of policy analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  Banks, meanwhile, are unlikely to finance the first factory for a solar company if the technology is relatively new and untested.

That leaves government programs, such as low-cost loans, and state incentives for economic development to help fill the financing gap in many cases.

*   *   *

In an effort to stimulate exports, the China Development Bank has made $40 billion in credit available to six solar companies in the past six months, said Zindler from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  The U.S. stimulus program made billions of dollars available to stimulate clean-energy technologies, but the U.S. can’t match the amount of money China has made available through these low-cost loans, he said.

“Chinese solar companies are grinding down the cost by building plants the size the world has never seen before and deploying unbelievable amounts of capital to do it,” Zindler said.

In the U.S., the solar industry scored a victory with the passage of the tax bill last week because it included a one-year extension to a grant that replaces a tax credit subsidy.  But it’s unclear what the long-term direction on renewable energy policy is in the U.S., which creates questions over how strong demand will be for solar, Zindler said.

In our post-free-market milieu, there are many exceptions to the general rule that government assistance to business is a bad thing.  Now that people are finally facing up to the reality that many companies (some of which are Cayman Islands-based corporations) have been receiving U.S. government subsidies (of some sort) for decades, difficult decisions must be made to determine when this is appropriate and when it’s not.  American voters need to face up to the fact that many of those poseurs claiming to be champions of “American free enterprise” are nothing more than hypocritical tools for whoever is lining their pockets.  “American free enterprise” died at Maiden Lane.  Deal with it.