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Geithner Redeems Himself – For Now

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I’ve never been a fan of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.  Nevertheless, I have to give the guy credit for delivering a great speech at the Economic Club of Chicago on April 4.  The event took place in a building which was formerly home to an off-track betting parlor, with an “upscale” section called The Derby Club (where Gene Siskel spent lots of time and money)  – in an era before discretionary income became an obsolete concept.

At a time when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is suffering from “buyer’s remorse” after bankrolling the election of ideologues opposed to infrastructure spending, Geithner spoke out in favor of common sense.  We have come a long, painful way from the days when the Chamber of Commerce aligned itself against the interests of the “little people”.  As Keith Laing reported for The Hill, the Chamber no longer considers “stimulus” to be such a dirty word.  Laing discussed the joint efforts by the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO executive Edward Wytkind to advance the transportation bill through a Congressional roadblock:

“We’re going to be pounding away during the recess to get House members to know they’ve got to check their party at the door,” Wytkind said of Republicans in the House who opposed accepting the Senate’s transportation bill.

Other transportation supporters were similarly pessimistic.  U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive director of transportation and infrastructure Janet Kavinoky said the 90-day extension could lead to a longer agreement, but only if lawmakers get right back to work after the two-week recess.

“No length of time is going to be good for construction or business, but at least 90 days provides a length of time Congress could get a long-term bill done,” Kavinoky said.  “But the House in particular is going to have their nose to the grindstone, or whatever metaphor you want to use, to get a bill off the House floor and into a conference.”

The timing could not have been better for someone in a position of national leadership to deliver a warning that premature austerity policies (implemented before economic recovery gains traction) can have the same destructive consequences as we are witnessing in Europe.  To his credit, Tim Geithner stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.  Here are his most important remarks, delivered in Chicago on Wednesday:

Much of the political debate and the critiques of business lobbyists misread the underlying dynamics of the economy today.  Many have claimed that the basic foundations of American business are in crisis, critically undermined by taxes and regulation.

And yet, business profits are higher than before the crisis and have recovered much more quickly than overall growth and employment.  Business investment in equipment and software is up by 33 percent over the past 2 ½ years.  Exports have grown 24 percent in real terms over the same period.  And manufacturing is coming back, with factory payrolls up by more than 400,000 since the start of 2010.

The business environment in the United States is in numerous ways better than that of many of our major competitors, as measured by international comparisons of regulatory burden, the tax burden on workers, the quality of legal protections of property rights, the ease of starting a business, the availability of capital, and the broader flexibility of the economy.

The challenges facing the American economy today are not primarily about the vibrancy or efficiency of the business community.  They are about the barriers to economic opportunity and economic security for many Americans and the political constraints that now stand in the way of better economic outcomes.

These challenges can only be addressed by government action to help speed the recovery and repair the remaining damage from the crisis and reforms and investments to lay the foundation for stronger future growth.

This means taking action to support growth in the short-term – such as helping Americans refinance their mortgages and investing in infrastructure projects – so that we don’t jeopardize the gains our economy has made over the last three years.

And it means making the investments and reforms necessary for a stronger economy in the future. Investments in things like education, to help Americans compete in the global economy.  Investments in innovation, so that our economy can offer the best jobs possible.  Investments in infrastructure, to reduce costs and increase productivity.  Policies to expand exports. And reforms to improve incentives for investing in the United States – including reform of our business tax system.

A growth strategy for the American economy requires more than promises to cut taxes and spending.

We have to be willing to do things, not just cut things.

To expand exports, we have to support programs like the Export-Import Bank, which provides financing at no cost to the government for American businesses trying to compete in foreign markets.

To make us more competitive, we have to be willing to make larger long-term investments in infrastructure, not just limp forward with temporary extensions.

Any credible growth agenda has to recognize that there are parts of the economy, like the financial system, that need reform and regulation.  Businesses need to be able to rely on a more stable source of capital, with a financial system that allocates resources to their most productive uses, not misallocating them to an unsustainable real estate boom.

Cutting government investments in education and infrastructure and basic science is not a growth strategy.  Cutting deeply into the safety net for low-income Americans is not financially necessary and cannot plausibly help strengthen economic growth. Repealing Wall Street Reform will not make the economy grow faster – it would just make us more vulnerable to another crisis.

This strategy is a recipe to make us a declining power – a less exceptional nation.  It is a dark and pessimistic vision of America.

Is this simply another example of the Obama administration’s habit of  “doing the talk” without “doing the walk”?  Time will tell.


 

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Keeping The Megabank Controversy On Republican Radar

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It was almost a year ago when Lou Dolinar of the National Review encouraged Republicans to focus on the controversy surrounding the megabanks:

“Too Big to Fail” is an issue that Republicans shouldn’t duck in 2012.  President Obama is in bed with these guys.  I don’t know if breaking up the TBTFs is the solution, but Republicans need to shame the president and put daylight between themselves and the crony capitalists responsible for the financial meltdown.  They could start by promising not to stock Treasury and other major economic posts with these, if you pardon the phase, malefactors of great wealth.

One would expect that those too-big-to-fail banks would be low-hanging fruit for the acolytes in the Church of Ayn Rand.  After all, Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has not been the only authority to characterize the megabanks as intolerable parasites, infesting and infecting our free-market economy:

Too Big To Fail banks benefit from an unfair, nontransparent, and dangerous subsidy scheme.  This isn’t a market.  It’s a government-backed distortion of historic proportions.  And it should be eliminated.

Last summer, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by what he called, “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

… I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

So why aren’t the Republican Presidential candidates squawking up a storm about this subject during their debates?  Mike Konczal lamented the GOP’s failure to embrace a party-wide assault on the notion that banks could continue to fatten themselves to the extent that they pose a systemic risk:

When it comes to “ending Too Big To Fail” it actually punts on the conservative policy debates, which is a shame.  There’s a reference to “Explore reforms now being considered by the U.K. to make the unwinding of its biggest banks less risky for the broader economy” but it is sort of late in the game for this level of vagueness on what we mean by “unwinding.”  That unwinding part is a major part of the debate.  Especially if you say that you want to repeal Dodd-Frank and put into place a system for taking down large financial firms – well, “unwinding” the biggest financial firms is what a big chunk of Dodd-Frank does.

Nevertheless, there have been occasions when we would hear a solitary Republican voice in the wilderness.  Back in November,  Jonathan Easley of The Hill discussed the views of Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee:

“Dr. Volcker asked the other question – if they’re too big to fail, are they too big to exist?” Shelby said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”  “And that’s a good question.  And some of them obviously are, and some of them – if they don’t get their house in order – they might not exist.  They’re going to have to sell off parts to survive.”

*   *   *

“But the question I think we’ve got to ask – are we better off with the bigger banks than we were?  The [answer] is no.”

This past weekend, Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk resulting from the “too big to fail” status of the megabanks:

The concentration of assets in a few institutions is greater today than at the height of the 2008 meltdown.  Taxpayers continue to be at risk as large financial institutions have forgotten the results of their earlier bets.  Legislation may have aided members of Congress during this election cycle, but it has done little to ward off the next crisis.

While I am a champion for free-market capitalism, I believe that, in some instances, proactive regulation is a necessity.  Financial institutions should be heavily regulated due to the basic fact that rewards are afforded to the financial institutions, while the taxpayers are saddled with the risk.  The moral hazard is alive and well.

So far, there has been only one Republican Presidential candidate to speak out against the ongoing TBTF status of a privileged few banks – Jon Huntsman.  It was nice to see that the Fox News website had published an opinion piece by the candidate – entitled, “Wall Street’s Big Banks Are the Real Threat to Our Economy”.  Huntsman described what has happened to those institutions since the days of the TARP bailouts:

Taxpayers were promised those bailouts would be a one-time, emergency measure.  Yet today, we can already see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts.

The six largest financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were in 2008, having been encouraged to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices.

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product – at least $9.4 trillion – up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.

*   *   *

The Obama and Romney plan simply appears to be to cross our fingers and hope no Too-Big-To-Fail banks fail on their watch – a stunning lack of leadership on such a critical economic issue.

As president, I will break up the big banks, end future taxpayer bailouts, and restore capitalist principles – competition and creative destruction – to our financial sector.

As of this writing, Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate – including Obama – to discuss a proposal for ending the TBTF situation.  Huntsman has tactfully cast Mitt Romney in the role of the “Wall Street status quo” candidate with himself appearing as the populist.  Not even Ron Paul – with all of his “anti-bank” bluster, has dared approach the TBTF issue (probably because the solution would involve touching his own “third rail”:  regulation).  Simon Johnson had some fun discussing how Ron Paul was bold enough to write an anti-Federal Reserve book – End the Fed – yet too timid to tackle the megabanks:

There is much that is thoughtful in Mr. Paul’s book, including statements like this (p. 18):

“Just so that we are clear: the modern system of money and banking is not a free-market system.  It is a system that is half socialized – propped up by the government – and one that could never be sustained as it is in a clean market environment.”

*   *   *

There is nothing on Mr. Paul’s campaign website about breaking the size and power of the big banks that now predominate (http://www.ronpaul2012.com/the-issues/end-the-fed/).  End the Fed is also frustratingly evasive on this issue.

Mr. Paul should address this issue head-on, for example by confronting the very specific and credible proposals made by Jon Huntsman – who would force the biggest banks to break themselves up.  The only way to restore the market is to compel the most powerful players to become smaller.

Ending the Fed – even if that were possible or desirable – would not end the problem of Too Big To Fail banks.  There are still many ways in which they could be saved.

The only way to credibly threaten not to bail them out is to insist that even the largest bank is not big enough to bring down the financial system.

It’s time for those “fair weather free-marketers” in the Republican Party to show the courage and the conviction demonstrated by Jon Huntsman.  Although Rick Santorum claims to be the only candidate with true leadership qualities, his avoidance of this issue will ultimately place him in the rear – where he belongs.


 

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Latest Obama Cave-in Is Likely To Further Erode His Base

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Well, he did it again.  Despite the fact that President Obama had vowed to veto the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allows for indefinite detention of American citizens without trial, the White House announced that the President will breach yet another promise and sign the controversial bill.

Jeremy Herb at The Hill reported on the administration’s concern that if Obama were to veto the bill, there might not have been enough votes in Congress to prevent an override of that veto.  In other words:  Obama was afraid of being embarrassed.  The report noted the defensive language contained in the official White House spin, to the effect that some minor changes in wording were made to satisfy the President:

The White House backed down from its veto threat of the defense authorization bill Wednesday, saying that the bill’s updated language would not constrain the Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts.

*   *   *

The administration won some changes in conference committee, which wrapped up Monday, including the addition of a clause stating that FBI and local law enforcement counterterrorism activities would not be altered by the law.

Big deal.  Let the outrage begin!  At the Huffington Post, Michael McAuliff noted that the President had already decided to back down on his veto threat before the House of Representatives passed the bill:

The switch came just before the House voted 283-136 to pass the National Defense Authorization Act despite impassioned opposition that crossed party lines, with Democrats splitting on the bill and more than 40 Republicans opposing it.  Numerous national security experts and civil liberties advocates had argued that the indefinite detention measure enshrines recent, questionable investigative practices that are contrary to fundamental American rights.

At the Human Rights Watch website, no punches were pulled in their criticism of Obama’s latest betrayal of those very principles his supporters expected him to advance:

The Obama administration had threatened to veto the bill, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), over detainee provisions, but on December 14, 2011, issued a statement indicating the president would likely sign the legislation.

“By signing this defense spending bill, President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.  “In the past, Obama has lauded the importance of being on the right side of history, but today he is definitely on the wrong side.”

*   *   *

The far-reaching detainee provisions would codify indefinite detention without trial into US law for the first time since the McCarthy era when Congress in 1950 overrode the veto of then-President Harry Truman and passed the Internal Security Act.

*   *   *

“It is a sad moment when a president who has prided himself on his knowledge of and belief in constitutional principles succumbs to the politics of the moment to sign a bill that poses so great a threat to basic constitutional rights,” Roth said.

Many people might not know that quantitative equity research analyst and former hedge fund manager, Barry Ritholtz (author of Bailout Nation) is an alumnus of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, where he served on the Law Review, and graduated Cum Laude with a 3.56 GPA.  Here are some of the recent comments made by Mr. Ritholtz concerning the National Defense Authorization Act:

While this is shocking, it is not occurring in a vacuum.  Indeed, it is part of a 30 year-long process of militarization inside our borders and a destruction of the American concepts of limited government and separation of powers.

*   *   *

Other Encroachments On Civil Rights Under Obama

As bad as Bush was, the truth is that, in many ways, freedom and constitutional rights are under attack even more than during the Bush years.

For example:

Obama has presided over the most draconian crackdown on leaks in our history – even more so than Nixon.

*   *   *

Furthermore – as hard as it is for Democrats to believe – the disinformation and propaganda campaigns launched by Bush have only increased under Obama.  See this and this.

And as I pointed out last year:

According to Department of Defense training manuals, protest is considered “low-level terrorism”.  And see this, this and this.

An FBI memo also labels peace protesters as “terrorists”.

At his blog, The Big Picture, Ritholtz made these points in a December 3 argument against the passage of this bill:

You might assume – in a vacuum – that this might be okay (even though it trashes the Constitution, the separation of military and police actions, and the division between internal and external affairs).

But it is dangerous in a climate where you can be labeled as or suspected of being a terrorist simply for questioning war, protesting anything, asking questions about pollution or about Wall Street shenanigans, supporting Ron Paul, being a libertarian, holding gold, or stocking up on more than 7 days of food.  And see this.

Once again, President Obama has breached a promise to his supporters out of fear that he could be embarrassed in a showdown with Congress.  Worse yet, Obama has acted to subvert the Constitutional right of Due Process simply because he wants to avoid the shame of a veto override.  As many commentators have observed, George W. Bush was not plagued by any such weakness and he went on to push a good number of controversial initiatives through Congress – most notably the Iraq War Resolution.  I find it surprising that so many of President Obama’s important decisions have been motivated by a fear of embarrassment, while at the same time he has exhibited no concern about exposing such timidity to both his allies and his opponents – wherever they may be.


 

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Obama On The Ropes

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You’ve been reading it everywhere and hearing it from scores of TV pundits:  The ongoing economic crisis could destroy President Obama’s hopes for a second term.  In a recent interview with Alexander Bolton of The Hill, former Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean warned that the economy is so bad that even Sarah Palin could defeat Barack Obama in 2012.  Dean’s statement was unequivocal:  “I think she could win.”

I no longer feel guilty about writing so many “I told you so” pieces about Obama’s failure to heed sane economic advice since the beginning of his term in the White House.  A chorus of commentators has begun singing that same tune.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I predicted that our new President would realize that his economic stimulus program was inadequate because he followed the advice from the wrong people.  After quoting the criticisms of a few economists who warned (in January and February of 2009) that the proposed stimulus would be insufficient, I said this:

Despite all these warnings, as well as a Bloomberg survey conducted in early February, revealing the opinions of economists that the stimulus would be inadequate to avert a two-percent economic contraction in 2009, the President stuck with the $787 billion plan.  He is now in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how and when he can roll out a second stimulus proposal.

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise – simply for the sake of compromise itself – is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform – should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.

Stephanie Kelton recently provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time, in a piece she published on William Black’s 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.

*   *   *

In July 2009, I wrote a post entitled, “Gift-Wrapping the White House for the GOP.” In it, I said:

“If President Obama wants a second term, he must join the growing chorus of voices calling for another stimulus and press forward with an ambitious program to create jobs and halt the foreclosure crisis.”

With the recent announcement of Austan Goolsbee’s planned departure from his brief stint as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, much has been written about Obama’s constant rejection of the “dissenting opinions” voiced by members of the President’s economics team, such as those expressed by Goolsbee and his predecessor, Christina Romer.  Obama chose, instead, to paint himself into a corner by following the misguided advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Ezra Klein of The Washington Post recently published some excerpts from a speech (pdf) delivered by Professor Romer at Stanford University in May of 2011.  At one point, she provided a glimpse of the acrimony, which often arose at meetings of the President’s economics team:

Like the Federal Reserve, the Administration and Congress should have done more in the fall of 2009 and early 2010 to aid the recovery.  I remember that fall of 2009 as a very frustrating one.  It was very clear to me that the economy was still struggling, but the will to do more to help it had died.

There was a definite split among the economics team about whether we should push for more fiscal stimulus, or switch our focus to the deficit.  A number of us tried to make the case that more action was desperately needed and would be effective.  Normally, meetings with the President were very friendly and free-wheeling.  He likes to hear both sides of an issue argued passionately.  But, about the fourth time we had the same argument over more stimulus in front of him, he had clearly had enough.  As luck would have it, the next day, a reporter asked him if he ever lost his temper.  He replied, “Yes, I let my economics team have it just yesterday.”

By May of 2010, even Larry Summers was discussing the need for further economic stimulus measures, which I discussed in a piece entitled, “I Knew This Would Happen”.  Unfortunately, most of the remedies suggested at that time were never enacted – and those that were undertaken, fell short of the desired goal.  Nevertheless, Larry Summers is back at it again, proposing a new round of stimulus measures, likely due to concern that Obama’s adherence to Summers’ failed economic policies could lead to the President’s defeat in 2012.  Jeff Mason and Caren Bohan of Reuters reported that Summers has proposed a $200 billion payroll tax program and a $100 billion infrastructure spending program, which would take place over the next few years.  The Reuters piece also supported the contention that by 2010, Summers had turned away from the Dark Side and aligned himself with Romer in opposing Peter Orszag (who eventually took that controversial spin through the “revolving door” to join Citigroup):

During much of 2010, Obama’s economic advisers wrestled with a debate over whether to shift toward deficit reduction or pursue further fiscal stimulus.

Summers and former White House economist Christina Romer were in the camp arguing that the recession that followed the financial markets meltdown of 2008-2009 was a unique event that required aggressive stimulus to avoid a long period of stagnation similar to Japan’s “lost decade” of the 1990s.

Former White House budget director Peter Orszag was among those who cautioned against a further big stimulus, warning of the need to be mindful of ballooning budget deficits.

By the time voters head to the polls for the next Presidential election, we will be in Year Four of our own “lost decade”.  Accordingly, President Obama’s new “Jobs Czar” – General Electric CEO, Jeffrey Immelt – is busy discussing new plans, which will be destined to go up in smoke when Congressional Republicans exploit the opportunity to maintain the dismal status quo until the day arrives when disgruntled voters can elect President Palin.  Barack Obama is probably suffering from some awful nightmares about that possibility.


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A True Libertarian Steps Forward

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The Tea Party movement brought us more than a few Republicans who described themselves as “libertarian”, only to advance the agenda of the televangelist lobby once they were elected to office.  Beyond that, the “tax reform” they espouse applies only to corporations and the wealthy, with the middle class left to pay the difference to the Corporate Welfare State.

The 2012 Presidential campaign is now wide-open with the entry of an authentic libertarian, who has jumped into contention for the Republican nomination.  Although Ron Paul (a former Presidential nominee, representing the Libertarian Party in the 1988 election) has been receiving more than a little encouragement to make another White House bid (he won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference – CPAC) his age is a huge obstacle.  As Congressman Paul approaches his 76th birthday, many consider him too old for the job.

April 21 brought us the entry of Gary Johnson, a former Governor of New Mexico, into the race for the Republican Presidential Nomination.  At age 58, he is an active triathlete, who successfully climbed to the summit of Mt. Everest in 2003.  This guy brings loads of excitement into the race and is likely the only Republican who could defeat Barack Obama.  Gary Johnson’s support from outside the ranks of the Republican Party extends – not only to Independent voters – but to Democrats.  That’s right.  Gary Johnson could actually win the votes of a significant number of Democrats – something no other Republican could accomplish.  Republicans are going to have to take Johnson very seriously.  Nevertheless, Gary Johnson will surely make the televangelist lobby sick with his hardcore libertarian views.

Some recent articles about Johnson are the stuff of Bill O’Reilly’s worst nightmares.  For example, an April 20 piece by Christian Heinze for The Hill included this tidbit about the new candidate:

He’s running for the Republican presidential nomination on a platform that calls for withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq – a position that’s anathema to the party’s ruling class.  He also supports abortion rights and, most controversially, favors legalizing marijuana.

See what I mean?  Johnson has the guts to speak out for the changes which many Democratic voters would like to see – and which Barack Obama would never even bother to include among his trademark, false campaign promises.

Republican pundits regularly emphasize the importance of a candidate’s history of success in the business world, which is perhaps why they are now fretting that the party could be stuck with Donald Trump as its 2012 nominee.  Willard Romney’s inherited wealth gave him the opportunity to participate in the private equity business (Bain Capital) which he left in 1999 to become CEO of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.  As a result, Romney has been able to contrast that background against the qualifications of his political opponents, who have generally spent their adult lives at the public trough.  Gary Johnson presents a fresh challenge to Romney in the area of business credentials.  Johnson started his own construction business in the 1970s and became a self-made millionaire.

As a two-term Governor of New Mexico, Johnson didn’t hesitate to veto bills.  He used the veto pen more than 750 times and kept the state budget under control.

Johnson’s view of the 2012 budget proposed by Congressional Republicans is not likely to win him any new friends in the party’s establishment.  Here is what we learned from The Hill:

He claims the biggest threat to U.S. security is the nation’s debt, and to show how serious he is about fighting it, he says Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposed budget actually isn’t serious enough.

“It takes too long, and only get us a quarter of where we should be many years down the road,” he said.

One of the more informative essays about Gary Johnson was written by Niall Stanage for Salon on May 5, 2010.  That piece points out how Johnson doesn’t have much use for Rush Limbaugh or Jesus, which could cause him some trouble with the Republican base – many of whom have trouble differentiating between those two individuals.  Worse yet, the people at Fox News probably pulled out their hair after reading this:

Ask Johnson what he thinks of Barack Obama, for instance, and rather than the stream of vitriol that might issue semi-automatically from the lips of some party colleagues, he answers:  “You can’t help but like him.”

Obama, he says, “touched” him with his rhetoric during the 2008 campaign, though he adds that the president has proven disappointing and disingenuous since then.

After reading that remark, I was on the verge of giving Gary Johnson my unqualified endorsement.  Let’s see how he does on the campaign trail.

The 2012 Presidential race just became really interesting!


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A Bad Week For Rupert Murdoch

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We all know how this awful week began.  For Rupert Murdoch, one of his prized investments — Sarah Palin — had become the subject of heated debate.  Murdoch’s News Corp publishes her ghost-written books and Palin works for News Corp’s Fox News as a contributor.  While a team of doctors in Tucson heroically scrambled to save the life of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a team of spin doctors at Fox News scrambled to save the political life of Sarah Palin.  At this point, I defer to an excellent piece written by Glynnis MacNicol of The Business Insider:

It is clear that Palin spent the last few days testing the waters and leaving the heavy lifting of the defending her to the folks at Fox News, most notably Glenn Beck.

As Ms. MacNicol explained, Palin returned to her Facebook page on January 12:

In equally typical fashion, Palin offered little introspection into her role in the political dialogue of the past year and laid the blame directly at the feet of the media, whom she accused of “blood libel.”

As MacNicol and many other commentators pointed out, this choice of words exemplified yet another classic Palin mistake.  Palin’s gaffe drew criticism from the Anti-Defamation League and it gave her critics yet another opportunity to emphasize that Palin has been in over her head with her attempts to establish a national leadership identity.  The Hill quoted what Representative James Clyburn had to say about Palin’s latest misstep:

“You know, Sarah Palin just can’t seem to get it, on any front. I think she’s an attractive person, she is articulate,” Clyburn said on the Bill Press radio show. “But I think intellectually, she seems not to be able to understand what’s going on here.”

While Rupert Murdoch’s investment in Sarah Palin was obviously deteriorating and becoming an embarrassment for his Fox News organization, things were headed in a more catastrophic direction in his Australian homeland.  The intense flooding that had been ongoing for the past several weeks was being attributed to climate change.  A report from Reuters began with this statement:

Climate change has likely intensified the monsoon rains that have triggered record floods in Australia’s Queensland state, scientists said on Wednesday, with several months of heavy rain and storms still to come.

Although Murdoch now personally admits that climate change poses a serious environmental threat, his News Corp subsidiaries have an established track record of denying that any such threat exists.

An article from the Treehugger website provided details about how badly conditions had deteriorated in Queensland:

When 75% of Queensland is disaster declared due to flooding, that is a huge area, roughly equivalent to two Texas’s or the entirety of South Africa.  On the 31st of December Reuters was saying flood water was “covering an area bigger than France and Germany combined, inundating 22 towns and stranding 200,000 people.”  This is a continually unfolding natural disaster, of which the financial bill alone was projected to reach $5 billion AUD, and that was before the flash flooding of the past day or so.

*   *   *

Australia is a rich, industrialised ‘First World’ country.  But it’s third most populous state, Queensland, is currently coping with floods which have already decimated food crops, livestock, road and rail infrastructure, mining and so on.  The impacts of which will flow on (pardon the pun) to effect most every Australian. Already some particular fruits have all but disappeared from commercial markets.

If all that weren’t bad enough, what must have been the most chilling news for Rupert Murdoch came from Julian Assange of Wikileaks.  Ian Burrell of The Independent provided this report:

A year that has begun badly for Rupert Murdoch grew a little worse yesterday after the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, claimed to be in possession of secret documents damaging to the media mogul and his News Corp empire.

Mr Assange told John Pilger in the New Statesman he had withheld a cache of confidential US government cables and files relating to Mr Murdoch’s business as “insurance”.  He has claimed that his life is in danger if he is extradited to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault.

*   *   *

Mr Assange indicated that he had paperwork which could be hurtful to News Corp.  “There are 504 US embassy cables on one broadcasting organisation and there are cables on Murdoch and News Corp.”

Assange does lots of talking about documents he is holding as “insurance”.  Nevertheless, many commentators have mentioned the possibility all this boasting could amount to nothing more than a bluffing strategy.

In addition to discussing the Wikileaks threat, the Independent article provided us with the perspective of a former Murdoch associate on the possibility that Rupert might not be too happy with the way things are going at Fox News:

In a further broadside yesterday, one of Mr Murdoch’s former henchmen, Andrew Neil, publicly questioned whether the world’s most powerful media figure retained his grip over his organisation.

*   *   *

“My own view is [Fox] is out of control,” Neil told Richard Bacon yesterday on BBC Radio 5 Live.  “I think Rupert Murdoch has lost control of it. I know from sources he’s not happy with a lot that appears on it and I think he’s lost over the Glenn Becks and the O’Reillys,” said Mr Neil.

“[Murdoch] is uncomfortable with Glenn Beck and various other positions they take and some of the things they say.”  Neil, who fell out with Mr Murdoch in the early Nineties, claimed he had “very good sources at the heart of News Corp”.

If there is any truth to Andrew Neil’s revelations, it will be very interesting to see if Mr. Murdoch makes any changes at Fox News, due to his reported concerns.  Either way, 2011 could turn out to be a very important year for Rupert Murdoch.


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Betting Against Obama

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Most Congressional Democrats and supporters of President Obama are anxious to see an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  Nevertheless, as of this writing, the President has yet to even vote “present” on this issue.  Obama’s waffling throughout the tax cut debate has once again exposed his weak leadership skills, which are never overlooked by the people at Fox News:

“The players on the field want a game plan,” said one senior Democratic congressional aide who requested anonymity to be candid about caucus sentiment. “There’s an increasing frustration from members that there is not a plan … There is just tremendous frustration.  I mean, where are they?”

The aide noted that Senate Democrats, meeting behind closed doors Wednesday and most likely Thursday, intend to discuss the tax cuts, but there is one notable absence.

“Where is the White House?  There’s no one here talking to us today or tomorrow,” the aide fumed   .   .   .

*   *   *

Democrats are waiting for an express statement from the President, despite the fact that Obama opened the window on a temporary extension just after the midterm elections.

“We should have done this already.  Our bosses go home and are hounded about this.  I don’t get it.  Just extend the cuts for a few years and be done with it.  There are way too many fingers in the wind on this from both sides (of the aisle),” another senior Democratic aide involved in tax policy for years told Fox.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, began a recent blog posting with this observation:

The President says a Republican proposal to extend the Bush tax cuts to everyone for two years is a “basis for conversation.”  I hope this doesn’t mean another Obama cave-in.

Unfortunately, in all likelihood it does mean “another Obama cave-in”  — and it probably won’t be the last.  Professor Reich ended that piece with this rhetorical question:

If the President can’t or won’t take a stand now — when he still has a chance to prevail in the upcoming lame-duck Congress — when will he ever?

Answer:  Never (unless it means taking a stand – once again – in support of the Wall Street banks).

In the mean time, while Obama dithers, a group of 40 “Patriotic Millionaires” has stepped forward after writing a letter to the President, in which they urged him not to renew the Bush tax cuts for anyone earning more than $1 million a year.  Joe Conason included the text of that letter in a recent piece for Salon.  The Patriotic Millionaires expressed an opinion, which the President apparently fears might not be shared by his top campaign contributors:

We have done very well over the last several years.  Now, during our nation’s moment of need, we are eager to do our fair share.  We don’t need more tax cuts, and we understand that cutting our taxes will increase the deficit and the debt burden carried by other taxpayers.  The country needs to meet its financial obligations in a just and responsible way.

A similar stance was taken by billionaire financier Warren Buffet, during an interview conducted by Christiane Amanpour on the ABC News program This Week.  When confronted by Amanpour about the claim that those tax cuts for the very wealthy are what energize business and capitalism, Buffet gave this response:

“The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you.  But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on,” Buffett explained.

Writing for The Hill, Alexander Bolton discussed the frustrations experienced by Congressional Democrats, who are often left twisting in the wind while the President works out a strategy for traveling up a fork in the road:

Senate Democrats want President Obama to take a more hands-on role in legislative battles next year, when Republicans will have additional clout on Capitol Hill.

Democratic lawmakers say Obama could have done more to connect his legislative agenda to the concerns of voters — a shortcoming the president himself has admitted.

As the moment approaches for 2012 Presidential aspirants to declare their candidacy, Mr. Obama’s shortcomings are widely understood.  If the Democrats want to hold the White House, somebody with some guts should step forward pretty soon.


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Geithner And Summers Draw Flak

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August 30, 2010

It’s coming from everywhere.  House Minority Leader, John “BronzeGel” Boehner, while giving a speech in Cleveland on August 24, called for the ouster of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as well as the removal of National Economic Council Director, Larry Summers.  Bridget Johnson reported for The Hill that on August 28, Representative Tom Price (R-Georgia) echoed the call for Geithner and Summers to step down:  “They need to resign because the policies that they’re putting in place are not being effective.”

An editorial from the Republican-oriented Investors Business Daily expanded on Boehner’s criticism of the duo, without really giving any specific examples of what Geithner or Summers did wrong.  That’s because what they did wrong was to protect the banks at the expense of the taxpayers  —  the same thing a Republican administration would have done.  As a result, there have been simultaneous calls from the left for the sacking of Geithner and Summers.  Robert Scheer wrote a piece for The Nation entitled, “They Go or Obama Goes”.  Here is some of what he said:

It is Obama’s continued deference to the sensibilities of the financiers and his relative indifference to the suffering of ordinary people that threaten his legacy, not to mention the nation’s economic well-being.

*    *    *

While Obama continued the Bush practice of showering the banks with bailout money, he did not demand a moratorium on foreclosures or call for increasing the power of bankruptcy courts to force the banks, which created the problem, to now help distressed homeowners.

*    *     *

There is no way that Obama can begin to seriously reverse this course without shedding the economic team led by the Clinton-era “experts” like Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner who got us into this mess in the first place.

Economist Randall Wray wrote a great piece for Wall Street Pit entitled, “Boehner Gets One Right:  Fire Obama’s Economics Team”.  Professor Wray distinguished his argument from Boehner’s theme that because neither Geithner nor Summers ever ran a business, they don’t know how to create jobs:

Obama’s economics team doesn’t care about job creation. (here)  So far, nearly three years into the worst depression since the Great Depression, they’ve yet to turn any serious attention to Main Street.  The health of Wall Street still consumes almost all of their time — and almost all government funds.  Trillions for Wall Street, not even peanuts for Americans losing their jobs and homes.  No one, except a highly compensated Wall Street trader, could possibly disagree with Boehner.  Fire Timmy and Larry and the rest of the Government Sachs team.

As an aside:  If you take offense at Professor Wray’s suggestion that the government should get actively involved in job creation, be sure to watch the interview with economist Robert Shiller by Simon Constable of The Wall Street Journal.

The Zero Hedge website recently published an essay by Michael Krieger of KAM LP.  One of Krieger’s points, which resonated with me, was the idea that whether you have a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, both parties are beholden to the financial elites, so there’s not much room for any “change you can believe in”:

.   .  .   the election of Obama has proven to everyone watching with an unbiased eye that no matter who the President is they continue to prop up an elite at the top that has been running things into the ground for years.  The appointment of Larry Summers and Tiny Turbo-Tax Timmy Geithner provided the most obvious sign that something was seriously not kosher.  Then there was the reappointment of Ben Bernanke.  While the Republicans like to simplify him as merely a socialist he represents something far worse.

*    *    *

What Obama has attempted to do is to wipe a complete economic collapse under the rug and maintain the status quo so that the current elite class in the United States remains in control.  The “people” see this ploy and are furious.  Those that screwed up the United States economy should never make another important decision about it yet they remain firmly in control of policy.  The important thing in any functioning democracy is the turnover of the elite class every now and again.  Yet, EVERY single government policy has been geared to keeping that class in power and to pass legislation that gives the Federal government more power to then buttress this power structure down the road.  This is why Obama is so unpopular.  Everything else is just noise to keep people divided and distracted.

“Keeping people divided and distracted” helps preserve the illusion that there really is a difference between the economic policies of the two parties.  If you take a close look at how President Obama’s Deficit Commission is attempting to place the cost of deficit reduction on the backs of working people, the unified advocacy for the financial sector becomes obvious.  What we are left with are the fights over abortion and gay marriage to differentiate the two parties from each other.

It’s time to pay more attention to that man behind the curtain.



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ObamaWatch

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June 14, 2010

Last week, I highlighted some criticism of Barack Obama’s presidency, which came from such unlikely sources as Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich of The New York Times, as well as Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The man whom I described as the “Disappointer-in-Chief” during his third month in office, has continued to draw harsh criticism from unlikely sources.  At this point, the subject pondered by many commentators concerns whether any of this dissatisfaction will stick long enough to have an impact on the mid-term elections and beyond.

If the President read Tim Dickenson’s recent essay for Rolling Stone, “The Spill, The Scandal and the President”, it must have been painful.  Mr. Dickenson didn’t pull any punches while explaining Mr. Obama’s role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

Like the attacks by Al Qaeda, the disaster in the Gulf was preceded by ample warnings – yet the administration had ignored them.  Instead of cracking down on MMS, as he had vowed to do even before taking office, Obama left in place many of the top officials who oversaw the agency’s culture of corruption.  He permitted it to rubber-stamp dangerous drilling operations by BP – a firm with the worst safety record of any oil company – with virtually no environmental safeguards, using industry-friendly regulations drafted during the Bush years.  He calibrated his response to the Gulf spill based on flawed and misleading estimates from BP – and then deployed his top aides to lowball the flow rate at a laughable 5,000 barrels a day, long after the best science made clear this catastrophe would eclipse the Exxon Valdez.

At the Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith summed up a good number of the Obama Administration’s shortcomings in the first paragraph of her June 11 piece about the BP mess:

As readers may know, I’ve been consistently disappointed by the Obama Administration:  its faux progressive packaging versus its corporatist posture, its half-hearted, halting reforms which are noisily trumpeted as the real thing, its deep seated belief that public antipathy to its initiatives means it needs to work harder on selling its message, when it really needs a new strategy.

But the escalating disaster of the Gulf oil spill, and the unique constellation it presents, namely, a big, rich, isolated, foreign perp, which is largely if not solely responsible for the mess, in close proximity to contested mid-term elections, might actually rouse Obama to do something uncharacteristic, namely get tough.

This is by no means a likely outcome, but we are seeing some novel behaviors.  First is that Obama finally may have succeeded in getting someone important afraid of him.  This is a critically important lesson; Machiavelli told his prince it was much more important to be feared than loved.  Mere anger is often negotiation posturing or a manifestation of CEO Derangement Syndrome; fear is much harder to fake.  And BP is finally starting to get rattled.

In case you are wondering whether the President is still popular in Hollywood, The Hill recently turned to a couple of southern California bloggers to provide some insight as to whether Mr. Obama has begun to lose his sparkle in Tinsel Town.  John Nolte of Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood blog expressed the belief that the President’s supporters in Hollywood have been keeping the faith:

If anything, Hollywood is worried about and for Obama.  Worried about the upcoming mid-terms, his re-election chances, his sliding poll numbers, and his gilded ship sailing off course and landing in Carter-ita-ville instead of Mt. Rushmore.

From the more left-leaning perspective, Deborah White of The Liberal OC blog gave us the impression that the President’s Hollywood supporters are becoming increasingly disappointed, although not yet disgruntled:

As of now, President Obama has not lost the support of most Hollywood liberals.  But Democrats in Hollywood are also no longer lavishing praise on Obama as they did in hopeful droves before his triumphant election.

Hollywood liberals no longer view Barack Obama as someone they blindly “want to follow… somewhere, anywhere” as pal George Clooney famously told Charlie Rose in early 2008.

Meanwhile, Maureen Dowd has continued with her unrestrained criticism of the President.  Her June 11 column must have irritated more than a few people on Pennsylvania Avenue:

The press traveling with Obama on the campaign never had a lovey-dovey relationship with him.  He treated us with aloof correctness, and occasional spurts of irritation.  Like many Democrats, he thinks the press is supposed to be on his side.

The patrician George Bush senior was always gracious with reporters while conveying the sense that what we do for a living was rude.

The former constitutional lawyer now in the White House understands that the press has a role in the democracy.  But he is an elitist, too, as well as thin-skinned and controlling.  So he ends up regarding scribes as intrusive, conveying a distaste for what he sees as the fundamental unseriousness of a press driven by blog-around-the-clock deadlines.

During the Presidential election campaign, Mr. Obama was often described as a “Rorschach test” — people saw in him whatever they imagined.  Now that the President has been able to disappoint his supporters, the criticism is gradually becoming increasingly harsh.  As frustration over the BP crisis, unemployment and the economy continues to build — the criticism voiced by those who voted for him is likely to become more caustic.




Doctor Doom Writes A Prescription

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May 6, 2010

As I discussed on April 26, expectations for serious financial reform are pretty low.  Worse yet, Lloyd Blankfein (CEO of Goldman Sachs) felt confident enough to make this announcement, during a conference call with private wealth management clients:

“We will be among the biggest beneficiaries of reform.”

So how effective could “financial reform” possibly be if Lloyd Bankfiend expects to benefit from it?  Allan Sloan of Fortune suggested following the old Wall Street maxim of “what they promise you isn’t necessarily what you get” when examining the plans to reform Wall Street:

President Obama talks about “a common sense, reasonable, nonideological approach to target the root problems that led to the turmoil in our financial sector and ultimately in our entire economy.”  But what we’ll get from the actual legislation isn’t necessarily what we hear from the Salesman-in-Chief.

Sloan offered an alternative by providing “Six Simple Steps” to help fix the financial system.  He wasn’t alone in providing suggestions overlooked by our legislators.

Nouriel Roubini (often referred to as “Doctor Doom” because he was one of the few economists to anticipate the scale of the financial crisis) has written a new book with Stephen Mihm entitled, Crisis Economics:  A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.  (Mihm is a professor of economic history and a New York Times Magazine writer.)  An excerpt from the book recently appeared in The Telegraph.  The idea of fixing our “sub-prime financial system” was introduced this way:

Even though they have suffered the worst financial crisis in generations, many countries have shown a remarkable reluctance to inaugurate the sort of wholesale reform necessary to bring the financial system to heel.  Instead, people talk of tinkering with the financial system, as if what just happened was caused by a few bad mortgages.

*   *   *

Since its founding, the United States has suffered from brutal banking crises and other financial disasters on a regular basis.  Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, crippling panics and depressions hit the nation again and again.  The crisis was less a function of sub-prime mortgages than of a sub-prime financial system.  Thanks to everything from warped compensation structures to corrupt ratings agencies, the global financial system rotted from the inside out.  The financial crisis merely ripped the sleek and shiny skin off what had become, over the years, a gangrenous mess.

Roubini and Mihm had nothing favorable to say about CDOs, which they referred to as “Chernobyl Death Obligations”.  Beyond that, the authors called for more transparency in derivatives trading:

Equally comprehensive reforms must be imposed on the kinds of deadly derivatives that blew up in the recent crisis.  So-called over-the-counter derivatives — better described as under-the-table — must be hauled into the light of day, put on central clearing houses and exchanges and registered in databases; their use must be appropriately restricted.  Moreover, the regulation of derivatives should be consolidated under a single regulator.

Although derivatives trading reform has been advanced by Senators Maria Cantwell and Blanche Lincoln, inclusion of such a proposal in the financial reform bill faces an uphill battle.  As Ezra Klein of The Washington Post reported:

The administration, the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and even the FDIC are lockstep against it.

The administration, Treasury and the Fed are also fighting hard against a bipartisan effort to include an amendment in the financial reform bill that would compel a full audit of the Federal Reserve.  I’m intrigued by the possibility that President Obama could veto the financial reform bill if it includes a provision to audit the Fed.

Jordan Fabian of The Hill discussed Congressman Alan Grayson’s theory about why Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner opposes a Fed audit:

But Grayson, who is known for his tough broadsides against opponents, indicated Geithner may have had a role in enacting “secret bailouts and loan guarantees” to large corporations, while New York Fed chairman during the Bush administration.

“It’s one of the biggest conflict of interests I have ever seen,” he said.

With the Senate and the administration resisting various elements of financial reform, the recent tragedy in Nashville provides us with a reminder of how history often repeats itself.  The concluding remarks from the Roubini – Mihm piece in The Telegraph include this timely warning:

If we strengthen the levees that surround our financial system, we can weather crises in the coming years. Though the waters may rise, we will remain dry.  But if we fail to prepare for the inevitable hurricanes — if we delude ourselves, thinking that our antiquated defences will never be breached again — we face the prospect of many future floods.

The issue of whether our government will take the necessary steps to prevent another financial crisis continues to remain in doubt.



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