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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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The Scary Stuff

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July 6, 2009

During the past week, a good number of Americans had been soothing themselves in Michael Jackson nostalgia  . . .  others watched tennis, many were intrigued by the military coup in Honduras and everyone tried to figure out what was going on in Sarah Palin’s mind.  Meanwhile  . . .  there was some really scary stuff in the news.  With Fourth of July behind us, it’s time to start looking forward to Halloween.  We need not look very far to get a good scare.  Those of us who still have jobs are afraid they may lose them.  Those who have lost their jobs wonder how long they can stay afloat before chaos finally takes over.  Many wise people, despite their comfortable positions in life (for now) have been discussing these types of problems lately.  Their opinions and outlooks are getting more and more ink (or electrons) as the economic crisis continues to unfold.

As we look at the current situation,  let’s check in with the guy who has the biggest mouth.  During an interview on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Vice-President Joe Biden admitted that “we and everyone else misread the economy”:

Biden acknowledged administration officials were too optimistic earlier this year when they predicted the unemployment rate would peak at 8 percent as part of their effort to sell the stimulus package.  The national unemployment rate has ballooned to 9.5 percent in June  —  the worst in 26 years.

This was basically a concession, validating the long-standing criticism by economists such as Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a “Dr.Doom”) who refuted the administration’s view of this crisis.  Many economists (including Roubini) have emphasized the administration’s unrealistic perception of the unemployment problem as a primary flaw in the “bank stress tests” as established by Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Now we’re finding out how ugly this picture really is.  Here are some points raised by Dr. Roubini on July 2:

The June employment report suggests that the alleged “green shoots” are mostly yellow weeds that may eventually turn into brown manure.  The employment report shows that conditions in the labor market continue to be extremely weak, with job losses in June of over 460,000.

*   *   *

The other important aspect of the labor market is that if the unemployment rate is going to peak around 11 percent next year, the expected losses for banks on their loans and securities are going to be much higher than the ones estimated in the recent stress tests.  You plug an unemployment rate of 11 percent in any model of loan losses and recovery rates and you get very ugly losses for subprime, near-prime, prime, home equity loan lines, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, leverage loans, and commercial loans — much bigger numbers than what the stress tests projected.

In the stress tests, the average unemployment rate next year was assumed to be 10.3 percent in the most adverse scenario. We’ll be already at 10.3 percent by the fall or the winter of this year, and certainly well above that and close to 11% at some point next year.

*   *   *

The job market report is essentially the tip of the iceberg.  It’s a significant signal of the weaknesses in the economy.  It affects consumer confidence.  It affects labor income.  It affects consumption.  It affects the willingness of firms to start increasing production.  It has significant consequences of the housing market.  And it has significant consequences, of course, on the banking system.

*   *   *

But eventually, large budget deficits and their monetization are going to lead — towards the end of next year and in 2011 — to an increase in expected inflation that may lead to a further increase in ten-year treasuries and other long-term government bond yields, and thus mortgage and private-market rates.  Together with higher oil prices driven up in part by this wall of liquidity rather than fundamentals alone, this could be a double whammy that could push the economy into a double-dip or W-shaped recession by late 2010 or 2011.   So the outlook for the US and global economy remains extremely weak ahead.  The recent rally in global equities, commodities and credit may soon fizzle out as an onslaught of worse-than-expected macro, earnings and financial news take a toll on this rally,which has gotten way ahead of improvement in actual macro data.

All right  .  .  .   So you may be thinking that this is exactly the type of pessimism we can expect from someone with the nickname “Dr. Doom”.  However, if you take a look at the July 2 article by Tom Lindmark on the Seeking Alpha website, you will find some important concurrence.  Mr. Lindmark discussed his own observation about the unemployment crisis:

All of these people do have to find jobs again sometime and I suspect, as do many others, that the numbers understate the extent of the problem.  There are a lot of people working for ten or twelve bucks an hour that used to make multiples of those numbers.  That’s what you do to survive.   So as we all probably know intuitively, the truth is worse than the picture the numbers paint.

Lindmark included the reactions of several economists to the latest unemployment data, as quoted from The Wall Street Journal Real Time Economics Blog.  It’s more of the same — not happy stuff.  Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s self-serving, self-congratulatory claim that “green shoots” could be found in the economy was made during a discussion on 60 Minutes back on March 15.  That’s what you call:   “premature shoots”.

Just in case you aren’t getting scared yet, take a look at what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard had to say in the Telegraph UK.  He draws our reluctant attention to the possibility that there might just be a violent reaction from the masses, once the ugliness of our situation finally sets in:

One dog has yet to bark in this long winding crisis.  Beyond riots in Athens and a Baltic bust-up, we have not seen evidence of bitter political protest as the slump eats away at the legitimacy of governing elites in North America, Europe, and Japan.  It may just be a matter of time.

One of my odd experiences covering the US in the early 1990s was visiting militia groups that sprang up in Texas, Idaho, and Ohio in the aftermath of recession.  These were mostly blue-collar workers, —  early victims of global “labour arbitrage” — angry enough with Washington to spend weekends in fatigues with M16 rifles.  Most backed protest candidate Ross Perot, who won 19pc of the presidential vote in 1992 with talk of shutting trade with Mexico.

The inchoate protest dissipated once recovery fed through to jobs, although one fringe group blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995.  Unfortunately, there will be no such jobs this time.  Capacity use has fallen to record-low levels (68pc in the US,71 in the eurozone).  A deep purge of labour is yet to come.

*   *   *

The Centre for Labour Market Studies (CLMS) in Boston says US unemployment is now 18.2pc, counting the old-fashioned way.  The reason why this does not “feel” like the 1930s is that we tend to compress the chronology of the Depression.  It takes time for people to deplete their savings and sink into destitution.  Perhaps our greater cushion of wealth today will prevent another Grapes of Wrath, but 20m US homeowners are already in negative equity (zillow.com data).  Evictions are running at a terrifying pace.

Some 342,000 homes were foreclosed in April, pushing a small army of children into a network of charity shelters.  This compares to 273,000 homes lost in the entire year of 1932. Sheriffs in Michigan and Illinois are quietly refusing to toss families on to the streets, like the non-compliance of Catholic police in the Slump.

*   *   *

The message has not reached Wall Street or the City.  If bankers know what is good for them, they will take a teacher’s salary for a few years until the storm passes.  If they proceed with the bonuses now on the table, even as taxpayers pay for the errors of their caste, they must expect a ferocious backlash.

Do you think those bankers are saying “EEEEEK!” yet?  They probably aren’t.  Many other similarly-situated individuals are likely turning the page to have a look at the action in “emerging markets”.  Nevertheless, Mr. Evans-Pritchard, in another piece, exposed the hopelessness of those expectations:

Russia is sinking into a swamp of bad loans.

The scale of credit rot in the Russian banking system exposed by Fitch Ratings this week is truly staggering.  The report is yet another cold douche to those betting that the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) can pull us out of our mess.

So there you have it.  You wanted to see Thriller again?  Now you have it in real life.  This time, neither Boris Karloff nor Michael Jackson will be around to keep it “lite”.  This is our reality in July of 2009.  Hang on.

Just Keep Walking

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April 23, 2009

Peggy Noonan had an esteemed career as speechwriter to former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.  She now writes a weekly column for The Wall Street Journal and she frequently appears as a panelist on many television news programs.  She has been on the blogroll of this website since its inception.

On Sunday, April 19, she appeared as a panelist on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.  During that program’s Roundtable discussion, the subject eventually turned to President Obama’s decision not to prosecute the CIA operatives involved in the torture of detainees in the “War on Terror” as well as the decision to release the so-called “torture memos”.  Those memos were prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush administration.  They described the permissible use of such techniques as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement in a box with insects and other sadistic acts, intended to get detainees to provide valuable information.  Roundtable panelist Sam Donaldson expressed his opinion that the operatives who administered these interrogation techniques were not “just following orders”; they believed they were following the law because they were relying on the legal opinions expressed in those memos.  However, as Donaldson explained, if the people who devised those methods and wrote the legal memos condoning their use were “just trying to find cover” and just trying to find a way to get around American law and the Constitution, they should be held accountable in a court of law.  Donaldson added that if the President wanted to pardon those people, he should do so, although it would be important for those individuals to be held accountable before a court.

Peggy Noonan then remarked:

Oh, I have reservations about all of this.  It’s hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking:  “Oh, much good will come of that?”  Sometimes in life you wanna’ just keep walkin’.

Sam Donaldson then interrupted with the question as to whether it was right “to let people walk who may have committed a crime”.  Noonan then replied:  “Some of life has to be mysterious”.

Noonan’s remarks drew immediate outrage from Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.  As Sam Stein reported for The Huffington Post, Feingold was harshly critical of the rationalizations for avoiding prosecution of these people, as expressed by government officials as well as those in the news media.  Stein quoted the Senator’s expressed indignation:

“If you want to see just how outrageous this is, I refer you to the remarks made by Peggy Noonan this Sunday” …  “I frankly have never heard anything quite as disturbing as her remark that was something to the affect of:   ‘well sometimes you just have to move on’.”

Noonan’s opinion is emblematic of the mainstream media’s all-too-frequent response to scandalous events and it demonstrates why so many people have turned to the Internet to get the news.  If you overhear someone in a restaurant arranging a bribe with a politician:  Just keep walking.  If you discover information about illegal toxic dumping by one of your publication’s sponsors:  Just keep walking.  If Harry Markopolos approaches you and tries to explain how Bernie Madoff is running a Ponzi scheme:  Just keep walking.

Peggy Noonan’s statement wasn’t just a situation where she “misspoke”.  It was the expression of an arrogant attitude held by too many in the media who decide it is up to them to determine when the public deserves to know something and when it doesn’t.  After all:  “Some of life has to be mysterious”.

Shame on you, Peggy Noonan!  Shame on you!

Obama The Centrist

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January 12, 2009

It was almost one year ago when the conservative National Journal rated Barack Obama as “the most liberal senator in 2007”.  Of course, that was back during the primary season of the 2008 Presidential campaign, when many people believed that the “liberal” moniker should have been enough to sink Obama’s Presidential aspirations.  Now, with the Inaugural just a week away, we are hearing the term “centrist” being used to describe Obama, often with a tone of disappointment.

On Sunday, January 11, David Ignatius wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, entitled:  “Mr. Cool’s Centrist Gamble”.  Mr. Ignatius spelled out how Obama moved toward the political center after his election, beginning with the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, to appointing a Cabinet “which is so centrist it almost resembles a government of national unity”:

Since Election Day, he has taken a series of steps to co-opt his opponents and fashion a new governing majority.  It’s an admirable strategy but also a high-risk one, since the “center,” however attractive it may be in principle, is often a nebulous political never-never land.

Obama’s bet is that at a time of national economic crisis, the country truly wants unity.

The President-elect’s appearance on ABC’s January 11 broadcast of This Week with George Stephanopoulos motivated Glenn Greenwald to write on Salon.com that the interview:

. . .  provides the most compelling — and most alarming — evidence yet that all of the “centrist” and “post-partisan” chatter from Obama’s supporters will mean what it typically means:  devotion, first and foremost, to perpetuating rather than challenging how the Washington establishment functions.

Mr. Greenwald (an attorney with a background in constitutional law and civil rights litigation) began his article by taking issue with the characterization by David Ignatius that Obama’s centrist approach is something “new”.  Greenwald pointed out that for a Democratic President to make a post-election move to the center is nothing new and that Bill Clinton had done the same thing:

The notion that Democrats must spurn their left-wing base and move to the “non-ideological” center is the most conventional of conventional Beltway wisdom (which is why Ignatius, the most conventional of Beltway pundits, is preaching it).  That’s how Democrats earn their Seriousness credentials, and it’s been that way for decades.

Greenwald then focused on a point made by Mr. Obama in response to a question posed by George Stephanopoulos concerning whether the detention facility at Guantanamo will be closed within the first 100 days of the new Presidency.  The President-elect responded that:

It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize and we are going to get it done but part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication.  And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it’s true.  And so how to balance creating a process that adheres to rule of law, habeas corpus, basic principles of Anglo American legal system, by doing it in a way that doesn’t result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.

The magic words in Obama’s response that caught Glenn Greenwald’s attention were:  “creating a process”.  Why should due process require creation of a new process outside of our court system?  Mr. Greenwald suspects that this “new process” will be one that allows for the admission of evidence (confessions, etc.) obtained by torture.  If what Mr. Obama has in mind is a process that will protect the secrecy of legitimately-classified information, that is one thing.  Nevertheless, I share Mr. Greenwald’s skepticism about the need for an innovative adjudication system for those detained at Guantanamo.

George Stephanopoulos made a point of directing Mr. Obama’s attention to “the most popular question” on the Change.gov website.  It came from Bob Fertik of New York City, who asked:

Will you appoint a special prosecutor ideally Patrick Fitzgerald to independently investigate the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?

The response given by the President-elect involved a little footwork:

We have not made final decisions, but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that moving forward we are doing the right thing.

Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of Mr. Obama’s performance on This Week, did not overlook that part of the interview:

Obama didn’t categorically rule out prosecutions — he paid passing lip service to the pretty idea that “nobody is above the law,” implied Eric Holder would have some role in making these decisions, and said “we’re going to be looking at past practices” — but he clearly intended to convey his emphatic view that he opposes “past-looking” investigations.  In the U.S., high political officials aren’t investigated, let alone held accountable, for lawbreaking, and that is rather clearly something Obama has no intention of changing.

Obama’s expressed position on whether to prosecute the crimes of the Bush administration is fairly consistent with what he has been saying all along.  Frank Rich covered this subject in his January 10 New York Times editorial:

The biggest question hovering over all this history, however, concerns the future more than the past.  If we get bogged down in adjudicating every Bush White House wrong, how will we have the energy, time or focus to deal with the all-hands-on-deck crises that this administration’s malfeasance and ineptitude have bequeathed us?  The president-elect himself struck this note last spring.  “If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated,” Barack Obama said.  “I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we’ve got too many problems we’ve got to solve.”

Henry Waxman, the California congressman who has been our most tireless inquisitor into Bush scandals, essentially agreed when I spoke to him last week.  Though he remains outraged about both the chicanery used to sell the Iraq war and the administration’s overall abuse of power, he adds:  “I don’t see Congress pursuing it. We’ve got to move on to other issues.”  He would rather see any prosecutions augmented by an independent investigation that fills in the historical record.  “We need to depoliticize it,” he says.  “If a Democratic Congress or administration pursues it, it will be seen as partisan.”

Welcome to Barack Obama’s post-partisan world.  The people at the National Journal are probably not the only ones disappointed by Obama’s apparent move to the political center.  It appears as though we will be hearing criticism about the new administration from all directions.  When he disappoints centrists, you can read about it here.