TheCenterLane.com

© 2008 – 2014 John T. Burke, Jr.

Congress Under The Microscope

Comments Off

The November 13 broadcast of 60 Minutes, which featured a piece by Steve Kroft about Congressional insider trading, gave some needed momentum to the effort seeking a ban on the practice.  I originally wrote about this activity in September of 2009:

A recent report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn revealed how the law prohibiting “insider trading” (i.e. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.

*   *   *

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

In February of 2011, I discussed the subject again, including the history of Congressman Brian Baird’s introduction of  H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act) in January of 2009.  On November 14, I was pleased to report that a conservative pundit – Peter Schweizer – a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – had joined the battle against Congressional insider trading:

A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

On December 28, J.R. Dunn – consulting editor of the conservative American Thinker, enthusiastically weighed-in with a supportive review of Peter Schweizer’s book.  Beyond that, Dunn’s opening remarks addressed the greater problem:

Crony capitalism is the most serious current danger to the American community, a threat not simply to government or the economy, but to our very way of life.  It is the worst such threat since the trusts and monopolies of the early 20th century, and in much the same way. Cronyism is one of the major forces behind the establishment of the corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that has been taking shape in this country over the past two decades, a synthetic privileged class made up in large part of politicians, hustlers, and hangers-on who have become expert in exploiting the rest of us.

Fortunately, we have now reached a point where greater scrutiny is being used to investigate the manner in which Congress-cretins enrich themselves while in office.  David Richards wrote a great piece for the Daily Mail, which focused on the fact that over the past 25 years, the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen:

Against a backdrop of a vast budget deficit and fears of the fragility of the economy, analysis by the Washington Post shows that the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled over 25 years while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen.

It calculated that their median net worth, between 1984 and 2009 and excluding home equity, rose from $280,000 to $725,000.

Over those same 25 years the wealth of the average U.S. family slipped from $20,500 from $20,600, a University of Michigan study shows.

The Daily Mail article went on to point out that members of Congress are actually doing significantly better than America’s most wealthy citizens – who are so zealously defended by critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The New York Times’ report into the wealth of members of Congress found that they were also getting rich compared with affluent Americans.

It found that the median net worth of members of Congress rose 15 per cent from 2004 to 2010 as the net worth of the richest 10 per cent of the country remained for the most part flat.

This disparity between those they represent also translated into a wider gap in their experiences of the economy, the Post found.

It interviewed Gary Myers, the son of a bricklayer, a Republican who entered Congress in 1975. He said his experience of having worked as a foreman in a steel mill shaped his outlook and led him to vote in favour of raising the minimum wage and helped him to understand the need for workers to have a safety net.

‘It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,’ he told the Post. ‘I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.’

The same area is now represented by Republican Mike Kelly who was elected last year. After graduating he married the heiress to an oil fortune and took over his father’s car dealership where he had worked as a youngster.

He told the paper he believed he was overtaxed already and that unemployment benefits made some people less willing to look for employment.

On the other hand, there is one Congressman’s investment portfolio, which is being criticized for other reasons.  In fact, I’m sure that many investment analysts are having a good laugh as they read Jason Zweig’s recent posting for his new Total Return blog at The Wall Street Journal:

Yes, about 21% of Rep. Paul’s holdings are in real estate and roughly 14% in cash.  But he owns no bonds or bond funds and has only 0.1% in stock funds.  Furthermore, the stock funds that Rep. Paul does own are all “short,” or make bets against, U.S. stocks. One is a “double inverse” fund that, on a daily basis, goes up twice as much as its stock benchmark goes down.

The remainder of Rep. Paul’s portfolio – fully 64% of his assets – is entirely in gold and silver mining stocks.  He owns no Apple, no ExxonMobil, no Procter & Gamble, no General Electric, no Johnson & Johnson, not even a diversified mutual fund that holds a broad basket of stocks.  Rep. Paul doesn’t own stock in any major companies at all except big precious-metals stocks like Barrick Gold, Goldcorp and Newmont Mining.

*   *   *

Rep. Paul appears to be a strict buy-and-hold investor who rarely trades; he has held many of his mining stocks since at least 2002. But, as gold and silver prices have fallen sharply since September, precious-metals equities have also taken a pounding, with many dropping 20% or more.  That exposes the risk in making a big bet on one narrow sector.

At our request, William Bernstein, an investment manager at Efficient Portfolio Advisors in Eastford, Conn., reviewed Rep. Paul’s portfolio as set out in the annual disclosure statement.  Mr. Bernstein says he has never seen such an extreme bet on economic catastrophe.  “This portfolio is a half-step away from a cellar-full of canned goods and nine-millimeter rounds,” he says.

There are many possible doomsday scenarios for the U.S. economy and financial markets, explains Mr. Bernstein, and Rep. Paul’s portfolio protects against only one of them:  unexpected inflation accompanied by a collapse in the value of the dollar.  If deflation (to name one other possibility) occurs instead, “this portfolio is at great risk” because of its lack of bonds and high exposure to gold.

At least Congressman Ron Paul is authentic enough to “place his money where his mouth is” when criticizing Federal Reserve monetary policy.

As election year progresses, the current trend of “turning over rocks” to investigate the financial dealings of those in Congress could make things quite interesting.


 

Secret Phone Call

Comments Off

I’ve been reading a great number of articles by commentators who have expressed outrage concerning President Obama’s shocking capitulation in the negotiations involving the debt ceiling bill.  Despite the Democratic Party’s tactic of blaming the “Tea Party terrorists” for the all cuts – no revenue, pro-billionaire legislation, a few pundits have seen through this fog to point out that Obama actually got the bill he secretly wanted all along.  Glenn Greenwald presented a solid case for this theory at Salon.

Polling guru Nate Silver wrote two items on August 1, in which he analyzed the Congressional voting and demonstrated that President Obama – despite having been afforded the opportunity to include provisions in the bill to make it more economically stimulative and less onerous for those experiencing the greatest hardship from the economic crisis – decided to leave some available provisions “on the table”.

Nate Silver initially made this observation:

Fiscal austerity at a time of economic distress, and on largely Republican terms, is not what Democrats thought they were getting when they elected Mr. Obama in 2008.  Mr. Obama might have done more to make short-term stimulus – like further reductions to the payroll tax, which would not have violated the Republicans’ ostensible goals – the  price for long-term austerity.

Although it is impossible to prove one way or the other, I am not persuaded by the notion that Mr. Obama could not have delivered a better result to Democrats had he done more to stand his ground.  Despite the dissent in the Republican caucus, which had originally seemed like a tactical victory for Democrats, the compromise wound up looking more like Mr. Boehner’s original bill than Mr. Reid’s.

Later that evening, Mr. Silver provided an analysis, which exposed Obama’s abandonment of the objectives he was elected to promote:

These results seem to suggest that Mr. Obama left something on the table.  That is, Mr. Obama could have shifted the deal tangibly toward the left and still gotten a bill through without too much of a problem.  For instance, even if all members of the Tea Party Caucus had voted against the bill, it would still have passed 237-to-193, and that’s with 95 Democrats voting against it.

Specifically, it seems likely that Mr. Obama could have gotten an extension of the payroll tax cut included in the bill, or unemployment benefits, either of which would have had a stimulative effect.

*   *   *

With that payroll tax cut, the deal becomes a much easier sell to Democrats – and perhaps also to swing voters, particularly given that nobody spent much time during this debate talking about jobs.  Plus, it would have improved growth in 2012 and, depending on how literally you take the economic models, improved Mr. Obama’s re-election chances.

As many observers have noted, the plutocracy has been able to accomplish much more with Obama in the White House, than what would have been achievable with a Republican President.  This latest example of a bipartisan effort to trample “the little people” has reinforced my belief that the fake “two-party system” is a sideshow – designed to obfuscate the insidious activities of the Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party.

What follows is the transcript of an imaginary telephone conversation between President Obama and Roger Ailes of Fox News:

Obama:  Hi Rodge!

Ailes:  Hi Barry!  Congratulations on the debt ceiling bill!  Great work!

Obama:  Thanks.  I won’t have to renew the Bush tax cuts again until after the election.  That’s a relief!  Unfortunately, we’re getting some bad polling numbers now.  Problems with the base.  I need you guys to lean on the “liberal” stuff a little harder.  Both O’Reilly and Hannity have been doing OK on it – but I just wish they would get back to some more of the “socialist” accusations.  That would really help rehabilitate my cred with my estranged base.

Ailes:       The “socialist” shtick was more Beck’s routine – but I’ll get them on it.

Obama:   I found some old pictures of myself with Bill Ayers that you guys might want to use    . . .

Ailes:       Ayers is sooooo 2008!  We need something new.  We need to get you to Syria for a meeting with Bashar al-Assad.  When you shake hands with him – make sure you bow!  We can get a lot of mileage here from that!

Obama:   No!  That will piss off too many liberals – especially the Jews.  I’m trying to keep the smart people in my corner!

Ailes:       OK.  OK.  We just really need to get you on some sort of apology tour or something.  You could start traveling around to abortion clinics and promising them some federal aid  .  .  .

Obama:   Great one, Rodge!  I love that!

Ailes:       I’ll plant some of our protesters along the way – the ones who’ve already been cleared by the Secret Service.

Obama:   Yeah!  Bring back that guy with the fake assault rifle!  He was a trip!

Ailes:       I have someone better.  This guy has been posing as a “Tea Party activist” at “town meetings”.  He’s a great new talent!

Obama:   We could set up another “Joe the Plumber”-type of confrontation with that guy!

Ailes:       Definately!  I’ll have my people put a script together.  That story will have some legs that will carry us all the way to the election!  . . .  Speaking of legs – I’m getting some good numbers in on Bachmann!

Obama:   How’s our girl doing?

Ailes:       Great!  She’s really gonna’ kick some ass in Iowa!

Obama:   I saw her on with Sean the other day.  She’s doing a great job!  Are you guys going to start a scandal involving Mitt?

Ailes:       I need to maintain plausible deniability about what Rupert’s operatives are up to.  You know  .  .  .

Obama:   Gotcha!  ‘Nuff said!

Ailes:       Well, I’ll let you get back to work.  You must have loads of angry campaign donors trying to bend your ear right about now  . . .

Obama:   Yeah  . . .  But that’s not where the real money is.

Ailes:       Amen!


 

Magic Numbers

Comments Off

As soon as I got a look at the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 1, I knew that the cheerleaders from the “rose-colored glasses” crowd would be trumpeting the onset of some sort of new era, or “golden age”.  I wasn’t too far off.  My own reaction to the BLS report was similar to that expressed by Bill McBride of Calculated Risk:

The March employment report was another small step in the right direction, but the overall employment situation remains grim:  There are 7.25 million fewer payroll jobs now than before the recession started in 2007 with 13.5 million Americans currently unemployed.  Another 8.4 million are working part time for economic reasons, and about 4 million more workers have left the labor force.  Of those unemployed, 6.1 million have been unemployed for six months or more.

Nevertheless, the opening words of the BLS report, asserting that nonfarm payroll employment increased by 216,000 in March, were all that the cheerleaders wanted to hear.  My cynicism about the unjustified enthusiasm was shared by economist Dean Baker:

Okay, this celebration around the jobs report is really getting out of hand.  Both the Post and Times had front page pieces touting the good news.  The Post gets the award for being the more breathless of the two   .   .   .

Brad DeLong had some fun letting the air out of the party balloons floating around in a brief piece by Gregory Ip of The Economist.  Mr. Ip began with this happy thought:

TURN off the alarms.  After several weeks when the data pointed to a recovery still struggling to achieve escape velocity, the March employment report provided reassuring evidence that, at a minimum, it is still gaining altitude.

After completely deconstructing Mr. Ip’s essay by emphasizing the painfully not-so-happy undercurrents lurking within the piece (apparently included out of concern that the Federal Reserve might take away the Quantitative Easing crack pipe) Professor DeLong re-visited Ip’s initial statement in the sobering light of day:

There is “recovery” in a sense that the output gap and the employment gap are no longer shrinking — and so that real GDP is growing at the rate of growth of potential output.  But this is not reason to “turn off the alarms.”  This is not reason to talk about “pieces [of recovery] … falling into place.”  And I am not sure I would describe this as “gaining altitude” with respect to the state of the business cycle.

The exploitation of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report for bolstering claims that economic conditions are better than they really are is just the latest example of how the beauty of a given statistic can exist in the eye of the beholder – depending on the context in which that statistic is presented.   Economist David J. Merkel recently wrote an interesting essay, which concluded with this important admonition:

Be wary.  Look at a broader range of statistics, and take apart the existing statistics.  Don’t just take the pronouncements of our government at face value.  They are experts in saying what is technically true, while implying what is false.  Be wary.

David Merkel’s posting focused on the positive spin provided by a representative of Morgan Stanley concerning 4th Quarter 2010 Gross Domestic Product.  Merkel’s analysis of this statistic included some good advice:

In 4Q 2010 real GDP rose 3.1%, while real Gross Domestic Purchases fell 0.2%.  Why?  Energy and other import costs rose which depressed the price indexes for GDP versus Gross Domestic Purchases.

Over the long haul, the two series are close to equal, but when they diverge, they tell a story.  The current story is that average consumers in the US are doing badly, while those benefiting from high corporate profits, and increasing exports are doing well.

In general, I am not impressed with statistics collected by our government, or how they use them.  But it’s useful to understand what they mean — to understand the limitations of the statistics, so that when naive/conniving politicians use them wrongly, one can see through the error.

David Merkel’s point about “understanding the limitations of the statistics” is something that a good commentator should “fess up to” when discussing particular stats.  Michael Shedlock’s analysis of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report provides a refreshing example of that type of candor:

Given the total distortions of reality with respect to not counting people who allegedly dropped out of the work force, it is hard to discuss the numbers.

The official unemployment rate is 8.8%.  However, if you start counting all the people that want a job but gave up, all the people with part-time jobs that want a full-time job, all the people who dropped off the unemployment rolls because their unemployment benefits ran out, etc., you get a closer picture of what the unemployment rate is.  That number is in the last row labeled U-6.

While the “official” unemployment rate is an unacceptable 8.8%, U-6 is much higher at 15.7%.

Things are much worse than the reported numbers would have you believe.

That said, this was a solid jobs report, not as measured by the typical recovery, but one of the better reports we have seen for years.

On the negative side, wages are not keeping up with the CPI, wage growth is skewed to the top end, and full time jobs are hard to come by.

At the current pace, the unemployment number would ordinarily drop, but not fast.  However, many of those millions who dropped out of the workforce could start looking if they think jobs may be out there.  Should that happen, the unemployment rate could rise, even if the economy adds jobs at this pace.  It is very questionable if this pace of jobs keeps up.

In other words, if a significant number of those people the BLS has ignored as having “dropped out of the workforce” prove the BLS wrong by actually applying for new job opportunities as they appear, the BLS will have to reconcile their reporting with that “new reality”.  Perhaps many of those “phantom people” were really there all along and the only thing preventing their detection was the absence of job opportunities.  As those “workforce dropouts” return to the BLS radar screen by applying for new job opportunities, the BLS will report it as a “rise” in the unemployment rate.  In reality, that updated statistic will reflect what the unemployment rate had been all along.  An improving job market will just make it easier to face the truth.




2010 Jackass Of The Year Award

Comments Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




wordpress visitor

Ignoring David Stockman

Comments Off

July 19, 2010

With mid-term elections approaching, politicians are fearful of making any decisions or statements that may offend their wealthy contributors.  Accordingly, the prospect of allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire has become a source of outrage among Republicans.  In fact, many Democrats are afraid to touch this subject as their number of wealthy benefactors continues to shrink.

On July 11, Chris Wallace posed this question to Arizona Senator John Kyl on Fox News Sunday:

Senator, let me just break in, because I want to pick up on exactly the point that you just brought up, particularly, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  That is part of the big Republican growth agenda, let’s keep, not let expire, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

The fact is those would cost $678 billion over 10 years.  At a time Republicans are saying that they can’t extend unemployment benefits unless you pay for them, tell me, how are you going to pay that $678 billion to keep those Bush tax cuts for the wealthy?

Kyl responded with:  “Chris, that is a loaded question.”  Kyl continued to dodge the question, despite persistent follow-up from Wallace.  The Senator eventually escaped with this curious response:  “. . . you should never raise taxes in order to cut taxes.”  The apparent logic behind this statement was that you should never raise taxes on the wealthy in order to cut taxes for the middle class.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stepped up to reassure his party’s wealthy contributors that there would be a fight to keep those tax cuts in place – even if some of their old heroes thought the cuts were a bad idea.  Daniel Enoch of Bloomberg Businessweek put it this way:

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell spoke out against former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s call to let tax cuts that were passed during the administration of President George W. Bush expire.

One would expect that since Ronald Reagan has become a patron saint of the Republican Party, the opinions of Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman, might influence current opinion within the GOP.  Nevertheless, in a recent interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast, Stockman stepped on what has become a “third rail” for Republicans:

Stockman, a nominal tax-cutting supply-sider when he worked for Reagan, has been crusading in recent weeks for President Obama to let George W. Bush’s tax cuts expire — something that will happen automatically absent congressional intervention.

“The only thing Obama needs to do is say, ‘Gentlemen and Ladies of the Congress, don’t send me a tax bill because I don’t want one,’ ” Stockman tells me.  “He can take the political hit.  That’s his job.  That’s change you can believe in.  That would put $300 billion back into the coffers, beginning in 2011 and 2012, and it would erase one of the biggest policy blunders in history.  The Bush tax cuts never should’ve been passed because, one, we couldn’t afford them, and second, we didn’t earn them…  The lower half of American families don’t pay income tax, and they’re the people who ought to be given a break here.  By allowing these tax cuts to expire, you’re putting the burden on the top half of the income earners.  What is more fair than that?  So why does Obama want to extend, as apparently the White House has been saying, the tax cuts for $150,000-a-year families?  So the wife can buy her 19th Coach bag?”

Of course, we all know the answer to that question.   It’s because Obama is every bit as motivated as his adversaries to tailor his own policies toward generating campaign contributions.




Demolition Derby

Comments Off

June 24, 2010

They’re at the starting line, getting ready to trash the economy and turn our “great recession” into a full-on Great Depression II (to steal an expression from Paul Farrell).  Barry Ritholtz calls them the “deficit chicken hawks”.  The Reformed Broker recently wrote a clever piece which incorporated a moniker coined by Mark Thoma, the “Austerians”,  in reference to that same (deficit chicken hawk) group.   The Reformed Broker described them this way:

.  .  .  this gang has found a sudden (upcoming election-related) pang of concern over deficits and our ability to finance them.  Critics say the Austerians’ premature tightness will send the economy off a cliff, a la the 1930′s.

Count me among those who believe that the Austerians are about to send the economy off a cliff – or as I see it:  into a Demolition Derby.  The first smash-up in this derby was to sabotage any potential recovery in the job market.  Economist Scott Brown made this observation at the Seeking Alpha website:

One issue in deficit spending is deciding how much is enough to carry us through.  Removing fiscal stimulus too soon risks derailing the recovery.  Anti-deficit sentiment has already hampered a push for further stimulus to support job growth.  Across the Atlantic, austerity moves threaten to dampen European economic growth in 2011.  Long term, deficit reduction is important, but short term, it’s just foolish.

The second event in the Demolition Derby is to deny the extension of unemployment benefits.  Because the unemployed don’t have any money to bribe legislators, they make a great target.  David Herszenhorn of The New York Times discussed the despair expressed by Senator Patty Murray of Washington after the Senate’s failure to pass legislation extending unemployment compensation:

“This is a critical piece of legislation for thousands of families in our country, who want to know whether their United States Senate and Congress is on their side or is going to turn their back on them, right at a critical time when our economy is just starting to get around the corner,” Mrs. Murray said.

The deficit chicken hawk group isn’t just from the Republican side of the aisle.  You can count Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe “The Tool” Lieberman among their ranks.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times lamented Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s preference for maintaining “the markets’ confidence in Washington” at the expense of the unemployed:

Look around at the American economy today.  Unemployment is 9.7 percent.  Inflation in recent months has been zero.  States are cutting their budgets.  Congress is balking at spending the money to prevent state layoffs.  The Fed is standing pat, too.  Bond investors, fickle as they may be, show no signs of panicking.

Which seems to be the greater risk:  too much action or too little?

The Demolition Derby is not limited to exacerbating the unemployment crisis.  It involves sabotaging the economic recovery as well.  In my last posting, I discussed a recent report by Comstock Partners, highlighting ten reasons why the so-called economic rebound from the financial crisis has been quite weak.  The report’s conclusion emphasized the necessity of additional fiscal stimulus:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

In a recent essay, John Mauldin provided a detailed explanation of how premature deficit reduction efforts  can impair economic recovery:

In the US, we must start to get our fiscal house in order.  But if we cut the deficit by 2% of GDP a year, that is going to be a drag on growth in what I think is going to be a slow growth environment to begin with.  If you raise taxes by 1% combined with 1% cuts (of GDP) that will have a minimum effect of reducing GDP by around 2% initially.  And when you combine those cuts at the national level with tax increases and spending cuts of more than 1% of GDP at state and local levels you have even further drags on growth.

Those who accept Robert Prechter’s Elliott Wave Theory for analyzing stock market charts to make predictions of long-term financial trends, already see it coming:  a cataclysmic crash.   As Peter Brimelow recently discussed at MarketWatch, Prechter expects to see the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop below 1,000:

The clearest statement comes from the Elliott Wave Theorist, discussing a numerological technical theory with which it supplements the Wave Theory’s complex patterns:  “The only way for the developing configuration to satisfy a perfect set of Fibonacci time relationships is for the stock market to fall over the next six years and bottom in 2016.”

*   *   *

There will be a short-term rally at some point, thinks Prechter, but it will be a trap:  “The 7.25-year and 20-year cycles are both scheduled to top in 2012, suggesting that 2012 will mark the last vestiges of self-destructive hope.  Then the final years of decline will usher in capitulation and finally despair.”

So it is written.  The Demolition Derby shall end in disaster.