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Christina Romer Was Right

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Now it’s official.  Christina Romer was right.  The signs that she was about to be proven correct had been turning up everywhere.  When Charles Kaldec of Forbes reminded us – yet again – of President Obama’s willful refusal to seriously consider the advice of the former Chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, it became apparent that something was about to happen  .  .  .

On Friday morning, the highly-anticipated non-farm payrolls report for April was released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Although economists had been anticipating an increase of 165,000 jobs during the past month, the report disclosed that only 115,000 jobs were added.  In other words, the headline number was 50,000 less than the anticipated figure, missing economists’ expectations by a whopping 31 percent.  The weak 115,000 total failed to match the 120,000 jobs added in March.  Worse yet, even if payrolls were expanding at twice that rate, it would take more than five years to significantly reduce the jobs backlog and create new jobs to replace the 5.3 million lost during the recession.

Because this is an election year, Republicans are highlighting the ongoing unemployment crisis as a failure of the Obama Presidency.  On Friday evening’s CNN program, Anderson Cooper 360, economist Paul Krugman insisted that this crisis has resulted from Republican intransigence.  Bohemian Grove delegate David Gergen rebutted Krugman’s claim by emphasizing that Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus program was inadequate to address the task of bringing unemployment back to pre-crisis levels.  What annoyed me about Gergen’s response was his dishonest implication that President Obama’s semi-stimulus was Christina Romer’s brainchild.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The stimulus program proposed by Romer would have involved a more significant, $1.8 trillion investment.  Beyond that, the fact that unemployment continues for so many millions of people who lost their jobs during the recession is precisely because of Barack Obama’s decision to ignore Christina Romer.  I have been groaning about that decision for a long time, as I discussed here and here.

My February 13 discussion of Noam Scheiber’s book, The Escape Artists, demonstrated how abso-fucking-lutely wrong David Gergen was when he tried to align Christina Romer with Obama’s stimulus:

The book tells the tale of a President in a struggle to create a centrist persona, with no roadmap of his own.  In fact, it was Obama’s decision to follow the advice of Peter Orszag, to the exclusion of the opinions offered by Christina Romer and Larry Summers – which prolonged the unemployment crisis.

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

That’s a fine example of great leadership – isn’t it?  “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”  In 2009, the fierce urgency of the unemployment and economic crises demanded a leader who would not feel intimidated by the sheeple’s erroneous belief that the Economic Recovery Act had not “worked”.

Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men is another source which contradicts David Gergen’s attempt to characterize Obama’s stimulus as Romer’s baby.  Last fall, Berkeley economics professor, Brad DeLong had been posting and discussing excerpts from the book at his own website, Grasping Reality With Both Hands.  On September 19, Professor DeLong posted a passage from Suskind’s book, which revealed Obama’s expressed belief (in November of 2009) that high unemployment was a result of productivity gains in the economy.  Both Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) were shocked and puzzled by Obama’s ignorance on this subject:

“What was driving unemployment was clearly deficient aggregate demand,” Romer said.  “We wondered where this could be coming from.  We both tried to convince him otherwise.  He wouldn’t budge.”

Obama’s willful refusal to heed the advice of Cristina Romer has facilitated the persistence of our nation’s unemployment problem.  As Ron Suskind remarked in the previously-quoted passage:

The implications were significant.  If Obama felt that 10 percent unemployment was the product of sound, productivity-driven decisions by American business, then short-term government measures to spur hiring were not only futile but unwise.

There you have it.  Despite the efforts of Obama’s apologists to blame Larry Summers or others on the President’s economic team for persistent unemployment, it wasn’t simply a matter of “the buck stopping” on the President’s desk.  Obama himself  has been the villain, hypocritically advocating a strategy of “trickle-down economics” – in breach of  his campaign promise to do the exact opposite.

As Election Day approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that the unemployment situation will persist through autumn – and it could get worse.  This is not Christina Romer’s fault.  It is President Obama’s legacy.  Christina Romer was right and President Obama was wrong.


 

Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs

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My last posting focused on the widely-publicized research conducted by Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on a rather timely subject.  Their article, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  The following excerpt from the abstract of their paper provides the general theme of what their efforts revealed:

.   .   .  investigation revealed upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.

I began my discussion of that paper by looking back at a Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  The essay was written last January by James Q. Wilson (who passed away on March 2).  On March 4, William K. Black took a deeper look at the legacy of James Q. Wilson, which provided a better understanding of why Wilson would champion the “Don’t blame the rich” rationale.  As Bill Black pointed out, Wilson was a political scientist, known best for his theory called “broken windows” – a metaphor based on a vacant building with a few broken windows, which quickly has all of its windows broken because petty criminals feel emboldened to damage a building so neglected by its owners.  Bill Black emphasized that Wilson was exclusively preoccupied with minor, “blue collar” crimes.  Black noted that in a book entitled, Thinking About Crime, Wilson expressed tolerance for “some forms of civic corruption” while presenting an argument that criminology “should focus overwhelmingly on low-status blue collar criminals”.  Bill Black went on to explain how Wilson’s blindness to the relevance of the “broken windows” concept, as it related to “white collar” crime, resulted in a missed opportunity to attenuate the criminogenic milieu which led to the 2008 financial crisis:

Wilson emphasized that it was the willingness of society to tolerate relatively minor blue collar crimes that led to social disintegration and epidemics of severe blue collar crimes, but he engaged in the same willingness to tolerate and excuse less severe white collar crimes.  He predicted in his work on “broken windows” that tolerating widespread smaller crimes would lead to epidemic levels of larger crimes because it undermined community and social restraints.  The epidemics of elite white collar crime that have driven our recurrent, intensifying financial crises have proven this point.  Similarly, corruption that is excused and tolerated by elites is unlikely to remain at the level of “a few deals.”  Corruption is likely to spread in incidence and severity precisely because it undermines community and the rule of law and it is likely to grow more pervasive and harmful the more we “tolera[te]” it.

*   *   *

Taking Wilson’s “broken windows” reasoning seriously in the elite white collar crime context would require us to take a series of prophylactic measures to restore integrity and strengthen peer pressures against misconduct.  Indeed, we have implicitly tested the applicability of “broken windows” reasoning in that context by adopting policies that acted directly contrary to Wilson’s reasoning.  We have adopted executive and professional compensation systems that are exceptionally criminogenic.

*   *   *

Fiduciary duties are critical means of preventing broken windows from occurring and making it likely that any broken windows in corporate governance will soon be remedied, yet we have steadily weakened fiduciary duties.  For example, Delaware now allows the elimination of the fiduciary duty of care as long as the shareholders approve.  Court decisions have increasingly weakened the fiduciary duties of loyalty and care.  The Chamber of Commerce’s most recent priorities have been to weaken Sarbanes-Oxley and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  We have made it exceptionally difficult for shareholders who are victims of securities fraud to bring civil suits against the officers and entities that led or aided and abetted the securities fraud.

*   *   *

In the elite white collar crime context we have been following the opposite strategy of that recommended under “broken windows” theory.  We have been breaking windows. We have excused those who break the windows.  Indeed, we have praised them and their misconduct.  The problem with allowing broken windows is far greater in the elite white collar crime context than the blue collar crime context.

To find a “poster child” example for the type of errant fiduciary behavior which owes its existence to Wilson’s misapplication of the “broken windows” doctrine, one need look no further than Matt Taibbi’s favorite “vampire squid”:  Goldman Sachs.  One would think that after Taibbi’s groundbreaking, 2009 tour de force about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis . . .  and after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, the firm would at least try to keep a lower profile these days.  Naaaaw!

Goldman Sachs has now found itself in the crosshairs of a man, formerly accused of carrying water for the firm – Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Sorkin’s March 5 DealBook article for The New York Times upbraided Goldman for its flagrant conflict of interest in a deal where the firm served as an adviser to an oil (and natural gas) pipeline company, El Paso, which was being sold to Houston-based Kinder Morgan for $21.1 billion.  Goldman owned a 19.1 percent stake in Kinder Morgan at the time.  Andrew Ross Sorkin quoted from the script which Goldman CEO, Lloyd Blankfein read to El Paso’s CEO, Douglas Foshee, wherein Blankfein confirmed that Foshee was aware of Goldman’s investment in Kinder Morgan.  It was refreshing to see a bit of righteous indignation in Sorkin’s discussion of the dirty details behind this transaction:

When the deal was announced, buried at the end of the news release was a list of Wall Street banks that had advised on the deal, including Goldman Sachs.  Goldman received a $20 million fee for playing matchmaker for El Paso.  The fee, of course, was not disclosed, nor was the Kinder Morgan stake owned by Goldman Sachs’s private equity arm, worth some $4 billion.  Nor did the release disclose that the Goldman banker who advised El Paso to accept Kinder Morgan’s bid owned $340,000 worth of Kinder Morgan stock.

Now, however, a court ruling in a shareholder lawsuit has laid bare the truth:  Goldman was on every conceivable side of the deal.  As a result, El Paso may have unwittingly sold itself far too cheaply.  Mr. Blankfein may have said he was “very sensitive to the appearance of conflict,” but the judge’s order ruling “reluctantly” against a motion to block the merger made it clear that Goldman’s conflicts went far beyond mere appearances.

Here’s just one example:  In an effort to help mitigate its clear conflict, Goldman Sachs recommended that El Paso hire an additional adviser so that El Paso would be able to say that it had received completely impartial advice.  Goldman did not say it would step down, and lose its fee, it simply suggested that El Paso hire one more bank – in this case, Morgan Stanley.

After explaining that Goldman included a provision in the deal that Morgan Stanley would get paid only if El Paso agreed to the sale to Kinder Morgan, Sorkin expressed this reaction:

Goldman’s brazenness in this deal is nothing short of breathtaking.

Goldman’s conflict of interest in the El Paso deal was also the subject of an article by Matthew Philips of Bloomberg BusinessWeek.  Mr. Philips reminded us of whom we have to thank for “helping Greece dupe regulators by disguising billions of dollars’ worth of sovereign debt”:

New details have also emerged about Goldman’s role in helping Greece hide its debt so it could qualify for membership in the European Union.  In a Bloomberg News story out this week, Greek officials talk about how they didn’t truly understand the complex swaps contracts they were buying from Goldman bankers from 2001 to 2005, and that each time Goldman restructured the deal, things got worse for Greece.

The story reads like a cautionary tale of a homeowner who keeps returning to the same contractor to repair the damage done by the previous fix-it job.  At one point, Goldman prohibited Greece’s debt manager, Christoforos Sardelis, from seeking outside price quotes on the complicated derivatives Goldman was selling to Greece.

*   *   *

Yet Goldman’s sullied reputation doesn’t appear to be negatively impacting its business.  In fact, Goldman is outpacing its Wall Street competition recently in key areas of business.  In 2011, Goldman was the top adviser for both global M&A and equity IPOs.  A Bloomberg survey of traders, investors, and analysts last May showed that while 54 percent of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Goldman, 78 percent believed that allegations it duped clients and misled Congress would have no material effect on its business.

In other words:  Goldman Sachs keeps breaking windows and nobody cares.  Thanks for nothing, James Q. Wilson!


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Scientists Bust the Top One Percent

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Ever since the Occupy Wall Street movement began last fall, we have been hearing the incessant mantra of:  Don’t blame the rich for wealth inequality.  In fact, Herman Cain’s futile bid for the Presidency was based (in part) on that very theme.  Last January, James Q. Wilson (who passed away on Friday) wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post entitled, “Angry about inequality?  Don’t blame the rich”.  Paul Buchheit of the Common Dreams blog rebutted Wilson’s essay with this posting:  “So say the rich:  ‘Don’t blame us for having all the money!’ ”.  How often have you read and heard arguments from apologists for the Wall Street banksters, upbraiding those who dared speak ill of those sanctified “job creators” within the top one percent of America’s economic strata?

Finally, a group of scientists has intervened by conducting some research about the ethics of those at the top of America’s socioeconomic food chain.  Stéphane Côté, PhD, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, worked with a team of four psychologists from the University of California at Berkeley to conduct seven studies on this subject.  Their paper, “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior” was published in the February 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Here is the abstract:

Seven studies using experimental and naturalistic methods reveal that upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals.  In studies 1 and 2, upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals.  In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.  Mediator and moderator data demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies are accounted for, in part, by their more favorable attitudes toward greed.

The impact and the timing of this article, with respect to the current debate over income inequality, have resulted in quite a bit of interesting commentary.  I enjoyed the perspective of Peter Dorman at the Econospeak blog:

The tone of the first wave of commentary, as far as I can tell, is that we knew it all along – rich people are nasty.  I would like to put in a word, however, for the other direction of causality, that dishonesty and putting one’s own interests ahead of others are conducive to wealth.

*   *   *

The reason I bring this up is because there is a constant background murmur in our society that says that greater wealth has to be a reward for more talent, more effort or more contribution to society.

Most of the commentary written about the PNAS article has been relatively non-partisan.  Two-day access for reading the article on-line will cost you ten bucks.  For those of us who can’t afford that (as well as for those who can afford it – but are too greedy to pay for anything) I have assembled a number of excerpts from articles written by those who actually read the entire scientific paper.  The following passages will provide you with some interesting details about the research conducted by this group.

Christopher Shea of The Wall Street Journal gave us a brief peek at some of the specific findings of the studies conducted by this team.

It went so far as to show that higher-class people will literally take candy from the mouths of children.

An excerpt quoted by Shea illustrated how the group expanded on an observation made by French sociologist Émile Durkheim:

 “From the top to the bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused,” Durkheim famously wrote.  Although greed may indeed be a motivation all people have felt at points in their lives, we argue that greed motives are not equally prevalent across all social strata.

Brandon Keim of Wired offered us more research data from the article, while focusing on the observations of team member Paul Piff, a Berkeley psychologist:

“This work is important because it suggests that people often act unethically not because they are desperate and in the dumps, but because they feel entitled and want to get ahead,” said evolutionary psychologist and consumer researcher Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota, who was not involved in the work.  “I am especially impressed that the findings are consistent across seven different studies with varied methodologies.  This work is not just good science, but it is shows deeper insight into the reasons why people lie, cheat, and steal.”

According to Piff, unethical behavior in the study was driven both by greed, which makes people less empathic, and the nature of wealth in a highly stratified society.  It insulates people from the consequences of their actions, reduces their need for social connections and fuels feelings of entitlement, all of which become self-reinforcing cultural norms.

“When pursuit of self-interest is allowed to run unchecked, it can lead to socially pernicious outcomes,” said Piff, who noted that the findings are not politically partisan.  “The same rules apply to liberals and conservatives.  We always control for political persuasion,” he said.

For Thomas B. Edsall of The New York Times, the research performed by this group helped explain the rationale behind a bit of Republican campaign strategy:

Republicans recognize the political usefulness of objectification, capitalizing on “compassion fatigue,” or the exhaustion of empathy, among large swathes of the electorate who are already stressed by the economic collapse of 2008, high levels of unemployment, an epidemic of foreclosures, stagnant wages and a hyper-competitive business arena.

Compassion fatigue was fully evident in Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC denouncing a federal plan to prop up “losers’ mortgages” at taxpayer expense, a rant that helped spark the formation of the Tea Party.  Republican debates provided further evidence of compassion fatigue when audiences cheered the record-setting use of the death penalty in Texas and applauded the prospect of a gravely ill pauper who, unable to pay medical fees, was allowed to die.

Jonathan Gitlin of Ars Technica reported on some of the juicy details from a few experiments.  When reading about my favorite experiment, keep in mind that the term “SES” refers to socioeconomic status.

Study number four involved participants rating themselves on the SES scale to heighten their perception of status; they were then answered a number of questions relating to unethical behavior.  At the end of the experiment, they were presented with a jar of individually wrapped candy and told that, although it was for children in a nearby lab, they could take some if they wanted.  At this point you might be able to guess what the results were.  High SES participants took more candy.

Gitlin concluded his review of the paper with this thought:

The researchers argue that “the pursuit of self-interest is a more fundamental motive among society’s elite, and the increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing.”  However, they point out that their findings aren’t absolute, and that philanthropic efforts such as those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet buck the observed trend, as does research which has shown a relationship between poverty and violent crime.

Meanwhile, the debate over economic inequality continues to rage on through the 2012 election cycle.  It will be interesting to observe whether this scientific report is exploited to bolster the argument that most of the one-percenters suffer from a character flaw, which not only got them where they are today – but which is shared by their kleptocratic comrades, who have facilitated a system of legalized predation.


 

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Black And Reich

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April 16, 2009

I guess it’s because I was using TurboTax to work on my income tax return for the past few days, that I was constantly reminded of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Criticism continues to abound concerning the plan by Turbo Tim and Larry Summers for getting the infamous “toxic assets” off the balance sheets of our nation’s banks.  It’s known as the Public-Private Investment Program (a/k/a:  PPIP or “pee-pip”).  I recently read an article by a couple of Economics professors named Laurence J. Kotlikoff (Boston University) and Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University) wherein they referred to this plan as the GASP (Geithner And Summers Plan).  Their bottom line:

The Geithner-and-Summers Plan should be scrapped.  President Obama should ask his advisors to canvas the economics and legal community to hear the much better ideas that are in wide circulation.

One of the harshest critics of the PPIP is William Black, an Economics professor at the University of Missouri.  Professor Black gained recognition during the 1980s while he was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).  During that time, the FSLIC helped block an attempted sale of Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan, which was subsequently seized by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, despite opposition from five United States Senators, who became known as the Keating Five.  A recent interview with Professor Black by Jack Willoughby of Barrons revealed that Black’s aversion to the PPIP starts with the fact that it is being implemented by Geithner and Summers:

We have failed bankers giving advice to failed regulators on how to deal with failed assets.  How can it result in anything but failure?  If they are going to get any truthful investigation, the Democrats picked the wrong financial team.  Tim Geithner, the current Secretary of the Treasury, and Larry Summers, chairman of the National Economic Council, were important architects of the problems.  Geithner especially represents a failed regulator, having presided over the bailouts of major New York banks.

I particularly enjoyed Black’s characterization of the PPIP’s use of government (i.e. taxpayer) money to back private purchases of the toxic assets:

It is worse than a lie.  Geithner has appropriated the language of his critics and of the forthright to support dishonesty.  That is what’s so appalling — numbering himself among those who convey tough medicine when he is really pandering to the interests of a select group of banks who are on a first-name basis with Washington politicians.

The current law mandates prompt corrective action, which means speedy resolution of insolvencies.  He is flouting the law, in naked violation, in order to pursue the kind of favoritism that the law was designed to prevent.  He has introduced the concept of capital insurance, essentially turning the U.S. taxpayer into the sucker who is going to pay for everything.  He chose this path because he knew Congress would never authorize a bailout based on crony capitalism.

For the past month or so, I’ve been hearing many stock market commentators bemoan the fact that there is so much money “on the sidelines”.  In other words, people with trading accounts are letting their money sit in brokerage money market accounts, rather than risking it in the stock markets.  I believe that many of these people are so discouraged by the sleazy environment on Wall Street, they are waiting for things to get cleaned up before they take any more chances in a casino where so many games are rigged.  In the Barrons interview, Black made a point that reinforced my opinion:

His (Geithner’s) use of language like “legacy assets” — and channeling the worst aspects of Milton Friedman — is positively Orwellian.  Extreme conservatives wrongly assume that the government can’t do anything right.  And they wrongly assume that the market will ultimately lead to correct actions.  If cheaters prosper, cheaters will dominate.  It is like Gresham’s law:  Bad money drives out the good.  Well, bad behavior drives out good behavior, without good enforcement.

By asking Professor Black a few simple, straightforward questions (in layperson’s language) Jack Willoughby got some fantastic and refreshing information in return (also in layperson’s language) making this article a “must read”.  As Black and many others have pointed out, these huge financial institutions must be broken down into smaller businesses.  Why isn’t this being undertaken?  Professor Black looks to where the buck stops:

Obama, who is doing so well in so many other arenas, appears to be slipping because he trusts Democrats high in the party structure too much.

These Democrats want to maintain America’s pre-eminence in global financial capitalism at any cost.  They remain wedded to the bad idea of bigness, the so-called financial supermarket — one-stop shopping for all customers — that has allowed the American financial system to paper the world with subprime debt.  Even the managers of these worldwide financial conglomerates testify that they have become so sprawling as to be unmanageable.

Another critic of the Geithner-Summers PPIP is former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.  Reich is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  His April 6 blog entry discussed the fact that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned a total of $11.6 billion last year:

But what causes me severe heartburn is that these are exactly the sort of investors Tim Geithner is trying to lure in to buy troubled assets from banks, with an extraordinary offer financed by you and me and other taxpayers:  If it turns out the troubled assets are worth more than these guys pay for them, they could make a fortune.  If it turns out the assets are worth less, these guys won’t lose a thing because we taxpayers will bail them out.  Plus, they get to pick only the highest-rated of the big banks’ bad assets and can review them carefully before buying.

What a deal.  Why can’t you and I get in on this bonanza? Because we’re too small.  The government will designate only about five big investor funds — run or owned by the richest of the rich — as potential buyers.  Hedge funds fit the bill perfectly.

It’s nice to know that more and more prominent individuals in the world of economics and public policy are taking the ethical stand against a program based on the principle of “socialized loss and privatized gain”.  I just hope President Obama doesn’t take too long to realize that these people are right and that the Geithner – Summers team is wrong.

Food For Thought

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March 9, 2009

Every so often, conservative columnist (and baseball fan) George Will hits one out of the park.  He did so again in Sunday’s Washington Post.  While other conservative columnists busied themselves by blaming Barack Obama for our current recession (after all, he’s been in office for 48 whole days!) Mr. Will found something more important to discuss.  In an article called “Where the Obesity Grows“, Mr. Will addressed America’s diet problem.  The undercurrent of Will’s article focused on the fact that our new Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, is the former Governor of Iowa (a state which obtains a large amount of revenue from corn production).  Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Vilsack will embark on some sort of “corn agenda”, especially since Iowa produces a number of other crops, including the increasingly-popular soybean.  Besides, Nebraska is widely accepted as America’s greatest corn-producing state.

Consider these points discussed in George Will’s article and be sure to remind yourself that these aren’t the rantings of some “lefty”:

A quarter of the 45,000 items in the average supermarket contain processed corn.  Fossil fuels are involved in planting, fertilizing, harvesting, transporting and processing the corn. America’s food industry uses about as much petroleum as America’s automobiles do.

*    *    *

Corn, which covers 125,000 square miles of America — about the size of New Mexico — fattens 100 million beef cattle and at least that many bipeds.  Much of the river of cheap corn becomes an ocean of high-fructose corn syrup, which by 1984 was sweetening Coke and Pepsi.  Disposing of the corn also requires passing it through animals’ stomachs. Corn, together with pharmaceuticals and other chemicals  …   has made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots rather than grass, cutting by up to 75 percent the time from birth to slaughter.  Eating corn nourished by petroleum-based fertilizers, a beef cow consumes almost a barrel of oil in its lifetime.

Although Tom Vilsack received some attention in Will’s article, the star character was a man named Michael Pollan.  Pollan is a professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.  Last year, David Laskin of The Seattle Times reviewed Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto:

Pollan’s bugbear this time is the so-called science of nutrition. Back in the good old days, people ate plants and animals raised (or foraged) close to (or at) home and prepared accordingly to age-old traditions.  But once nutritionists started isolating the chemical components of what we ate and putting them back to together in “new, improved” and highly processed ways, Americans began growing steadily more obese, more prone to diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and more stressed about our dietary options.  These days our food is cheap, convenient and increasingly plastered with health claims–but it’s making us and everyone else who eats it fat and sick.

More importantly, Mr. Laskin’s review of Michael Pollan’s new book made a point that was (surprisingly) not included in George Will’s article:

As the Senate’s recent rubber-stamping of yet another pork-filled farm bill demonstrates, America still lacks the political will to reform the agricultural practices at the root of our dietary woes.  But to Pollan, that’s no reason why enlightened eaters can’t rise up and start changing the Western diet one meal, one garden, one family farm at time.

On December 17, the more left-leaning Irregular Times website pointed out that the Organic Consumers Association had specifically asked that Vilsack not be appointed as Agriculture Secretary and that within one week, 10,000 people signed a petition opposing that appointment.  The Irregular Times piece gave us this appraisal of the Vilsack appointment:

Significant food reform is not what we can expect from a Secretary Vilsack.  As the Governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack defended the interests of industrial agriculture, and did plenty of favors for giant agricultural corporations like Monsanto.  Iowa agriculture is no longer typified by small family farms, but by gigantic fields of genetically engineered corn and soybeans, interspersed with concentrated feeding lots in which cattle and pigs pumped full of antibiotics stand in their own filth all day long.

Agricultural pollution from Iowa is so bad that it significantly contributes to dead zones all the way down in the Gulf of Mexico.  It contributes to global warming too, with methane oozing out of manure lagoons near livestock factory farms adding significantly to the concentration of greenhouse gases in our planet’s atmosphere.

None of these problems got better when Tom Vilsack was Governor of Iowa.  Vilsack has seemed more interested in promoting big agribusiness as it is than in reforming it.

On that same day, Gabriel Winant of Salon.com asked Michael Pollan for his reaction to the selection of Vilsack.  Pollan replied that Vilsack’s record in Iowa “does not give one much reason to believe he’s going to bring a reformist agenda to the Department of Agriculture.”  Pollan went on to explain:

He was biotech governor of the year.  And he has very close relations to Monsanto.  As with every other pick, the focus is on the Nixon-in-China scenario, the hopeful fantasy, which is that these people will be able to drive reform in their bureaucracies — that’s the story of this Cabinet.  Whether that comes true or not, we’re just going to have to wait and see.

By making Michael Pollan the subject of his article, perhaps George Will’s hidden message was:  Don’t expect too much Change from this administration or you will be sadly disappointed.