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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Political Protests in Manama and Madison: Human Nature Writ Large on Full Display

On February 17, 2011, The New York Times ran two major stories that have a common denominator: angry protesters. Bahrain and Wisconsin are not typically thought of together.  Bahrain is a small kingdom in the Middle East whereas Wisconsin is a large republic in North America. In mid-February, 2011, both were engulfed in protest in their respective capital cities. My thesis is that while the differences are real, they should not be overdrawn. The people in Manama and Madison are human, all too human, after all, hence they are fully capable of going well past the confines of polite society into the state of nature yet with vastly more interpersonal contact.


http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/02/16/us/WISCONSIN-8.html (poster of Mubarak and Walker at the protests in Wisconsin)
http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/article_1a175cce-30c3-11e0-b614-001cc4c03286.html  (on the psychology/corruption in the Madison police dept)
Iona Craig, "Protests Spread, Worsen in Middle East," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 8A.
Dennis Cauchon, "In Wis., Pitched Battle by Unions," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 1A.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Private Financial Interests in the Public Square: Crowding Out by Design

Is the typical American self-centered and greedy, or is there a civic-mindedness that yearns to bracket one's own interests?  In other words, is there more to American society than being the sum of the parts? Is there something more than the aggregate?  I don’t mean to criticize individualism here; creativity and liberty, for example, are individualistic traits that highlight a person's character and virtue. Nor do I mean to point to one of the two major parties. One could point to the democrats protecting unions at the expense of a free market for labor just as one could point to rich republicans holding tax cuts hostage unless they are included even though they could afford higher taxes.  If there is something more to American politics than asserting one's own interests, who is to represent the civic component?

The full essay is at "Private Financial Interests."

Monday, February 14, 2011

The EU and the US as Commensurate (albeit not twins)

Are the E.U. and U.S. commensurate? The conventional "wisdom" says no, but are most people, including most European leaders, missing something that in retrospect may be considered rather obvious? 

The full essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell: Vor zwanzige Jahre ist die Mauer gefallen

It was a gray rainy Monday in Berlin, yet the sun was shining for those in Europe who are celebrating the fall of the iron curtain.   Twenty years ago from that day, it would have seemed surreal to the east Germans who could suddenly simply walk across a border without fear of being shot.  People simply walked through.  “I just wanted to set foot on your side,” one man said.  “Can I cross over there and visit my parents?” a woman asked.  The east German police could only say, “go ahead.”  There would be no criminal penalties.  Before long, people climbed the wall and started chiseling away.  “The wall has to go,” they cried, “sie ist zu ende.”
A state the size of Montana in the EU, the united Germany is today a positive force in Europe.  The fears that gave rise to the European Coal and Steel Cooperative are no longer extant.  To be sure, the existence of the EU renders Germany less a potential threat to its neighbors.  However, Germany is playing a far more positive role in European politics than simply being contained.  In fact, Germany is among the states that have been most supportive of the EU, both monetarily and in terms of supporting further political integration.   The lessons of war are not lost on the descendents of those Germans who lost two wars in the twentieth century. The lesson is: a federal union in Europe is the best chance to obviate future war.  The seventeenth century alone demonstrates just how much strife can occupy a century. 

The problem is perhaps how to give the European Union enough power to prevent war while not giving the union so much power that it can tyrannize over what is innately a heterogenious empire-scale continent.  The United States face the same problem, though that union is much closer to the consolidation end than to dissolution.   As much as Europeans may fear consolidation, justifiably looking at American history as evincing such a trajectory, I believe that the illusion that the EU is simply an alliance (in spite of having a supreme court, parliament, and executive branch) ought to be feared just as much.   The former east Germans ought to know the decadence in propaganda.   To be sure, the denial in the US of the empire-level consolidation is just as dangerous.  Both refusals to come to terms with how each of these unions has changed is like refusing to remove one’s blinders before driving.   In both federal unions, a realistic assessment is requisite to reforming the governance structures to achieve a balance of power between the unions and their state governments.   Common action, such as to forestall war and regulate interstate commerce, and cultural and ideological distinctiveness can each be accommodated; in fact, each can serve as a check on the other, such that neither one can snuff out the other.   Surely one of the lessons learned by the east Germans was that concentrations of power ought to be suspect, given human nature.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Integrity in the Job-Description of a US Senator: The Role of the Senate's Design and Purposes

Micheal Bennet, who represented Colorado as a U.S. Senator, told a journalist in 2009 that the possibility of losing his seat  in 2010 should not hold him back from voting for health-care reform even if it were unpopular in Colorado.   Voting in line with the best interests of his fellow citizens would evince a degree of political integrity that I suspect few in the biz have today. However, might a representative be wrong and his or her constituents right about the long term best interest? Is a U.S. senator necessarily smarter or more capable of insight? Lest Bennet be criticized here for failing to have represented his constituents, one might take a look back at Madison’s Notes to the constitutional convention. 

The complete essay is at Essays on Two Federal Empires.

U.S. Government Debt: On the Pathology of Living Beyond Our Means

Fourteen times a thousand times a billion.  Such a number can only be known abstractly to the human mind.  A person is not apt to see 14 trillion widgets and thus fully realize how many that number signifies.  Just in an abstract sense, however, the number can be understood represent debt that is beyond sustainability.   If not, then exactly how much signifies the threshold over which any additional debt will never be paid back? At the beginning of 2011, the U.S. Government's debt was at about $14 trillion.

Consider the following from The New York Times when the debt figure was just $12 billionin 2009. “With the national debt now topping $12 trillion, the White House estimates that the government’s tab for servicing the debt will exceed $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion this year, even if annual budget deficits shrink drastically. Other forecasters say the figure could be much higher. In concrete terms, an additional $500 billion a year in interest expense would total more than the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” As much as the interest expense is expected to be (and the implied difficulty in paying down the debt, let alone covering its interest expense, it may be even harder before long.  According to The New York Times, “Americans now have to climb out of two deep holes: as debt-loaded consumers, whose personal wealth sank along with housing and stock prices; and as taxpayers, whose government debt has almost doubled in the last two years alone, just as costs tied to benefits for retiring baby boomers are set to explode.”

While the deficit-spending is perfectly understandable in the context of a financial crisis and otherwise likely economic depression, such spending has hardly been saved for such times.  In fact, it has been part of “normal” US Government budgeting.  What the newspaper doesn’t mention is that even in the late 1990’s when the government was running surpluses and the economy was booming, only part of the surfeit was used to reduce the government’s debt.  At the time, Bill Clinton’s administration used the “rationale” that the boom that had been going on since the mid-1980s would go on for another fifteen years from the late 90’s.   Even had that forecast been realistic, I’m not sure that all of the government surpluses together could have eliminated the public debt.

In any case, fiscally the US Government has been out of balance for decades.   What might be the cause?  Two candidates come readily to mind.  The American culture is a rather self-consumption-oriented society wherein spending beyond one’s means is not a matter of moral disapprobation.  In other words, the problem may boil down to a “gimme, gimme, gimme” mentality—a lack of maturity, really.  Secondly (and relatedly), representative democracy itself may itself favor spending over taxation to cover it.  Any normative constraint that might operate at the individual level may not exist at the institutional level where representatives are effectively rewarded for bringing home the bacon and punished for raising taxes.  Although it could be argue that the representatives should be more responsible nonetheless (as their goal ought not be simply to be reelected), we can point to ourselves, the American citizens, as the force behind the unsustainable fiscal situation.  We don’t have to endure incumbants who have spent in deficits, but we do.  The US House incumbancy rate almost guarantees that once someone is elected, he or she can be virtually assured of being re-elected in two years, und so weiter.    The problem, in other words, lies within us.  Too few of us value self-discipline in ourselves.  We are unwilling to call other people on their profligate credit-card spending, and we refuse to vote out of office those representatives who have voted outside of a financial crisis for an unbalanced budget.  Consider how different a people we would be were to insist at the ballot box that our representatives actually make a contribution to paying down some of the debt (again, not during a financial crisis) each year during their terms.  How different we would be if we held our officials accountable for more than scandal.   How different we would be if we “just said no” to the credit card companies and went without the plastic (using debit cards that could be used only on positive balances and having a savings account for emergencies).  If we look at the US Government as unsustainable, what we are really saying is that we, ourselves, are fundamentally flawed as concerning being adults.  The problem, in other words, transcends finance and politics.  We are living beyond our means.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/23/business/23rates.html?_r=1&hp

The Federal Reserve: Expanding its Turf in Spite of Having Come Up Short

Testifying before the US Senate Finance Committee on his re-appointment, Ben Bernanke volunteered that the Fed had been “slow” in protecting consumers from high-risk mortgages during the housing bubble and that it should have forced banks to hold more capital for all the risks they were taking on.  “In the area where we had responsibility, the bank holding companies, we should have done more.” he told lawmakers.  The hearing provided new evidence of doubt among lawmakers about the Federal Reserve’s  role as the nation’s guardian of the financial system. “In the face of rising home prices and risky mortgage underwriting, the Fed failed to act,” said Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the banking committee. “Many of the Fed’s responses, in my view, greatly amplified the problem of moral hazard stemming from ‘too big to fail’ treatment of large financial institutions and activities.”  Accordingly, Senator Dodd proposed that the Fed’s powers as a bank regulator ought to be transferred to a new consolidated agency. Even though Bernanke admitted that the Fed made mistakes as a regulator of the bank holding companies, he and other top Fed officials adamantly opposed Dodd's proposal, arguing that the Fed has unique expertise nonetheless and that the Fed's ability to preserve financial stability depends on having the detailed information that only a regulator has about the inner workings of major institutions.

The Fed has “unique expertise," and yet, “In the area where we had responsibility, the bank holding companies, we should have done more.”   In other words, the Fed’s Chairman admitted that his agency had not done a satisfactory job of regulating banks during the housing bubble and yet his organization should be given even more power as a regulator anyway.  Were we to trust the Fed to regulate systemic risk, given the agency’s squalid record leading up to the financial crisis of 2008? Regardless of what qualms this question may have raised, the Dodd-Frank legislation charged the Fed with guarding the financial stability of the United States. It gave the central bank the power to oversee the largest financial institutions, even if they are not banks. Finally, it gave the Fed a prominent role on the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a body of regulators that will have the power to seize a systemically important company if it threatens the stability of the economy. Testifying before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission on September 2, 2010, Bernanke signaled that the central bank was eager to embrace its strengthened role provided for in the Dodd-Frank law. This role ought to give us pause, given his remarks in 2007 in which he thought the subprime problems were “manageable.” To the Commission in 2010, he said, “What I did not recognize was the extent to which the system had flaws and weaknesses in it that were going to amplify the initial shock from subprime and make it into a much bigger crisis.”

Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/business/economy/04fed.html?ref=business ; http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/03/business/03commission.html?_r=1&ref=business

Eleven Time Zones: A Problem of Consolidated Empire

As of 2011, Russia had 11 time zones, from the Polish border to near Alaska, a system so vast that a traveller could get a walloping case of jet lag from a domestic flight.  In 2009, Russia was considering shedding some of its time zones.  People running businesses in the far east were complaining because the regulators were typically in Moscow, which could be several hours behind.    The issue blossomed at the end of 2009 into an intense debate across the Russian Federation about how Russians saw themselves, about how the regions should relate to the center, and about how to address the age-old problem of creating a sense of unity in a diverse federation that had been consolidated politically.  In short, the issue concerned the challenges involved in a consolidated empire. 

The sheer amount of territory in an empire that is made up of republics that are on the scale of independent states or countries makes “one size fits all” from the center extremely difficult.  It might have been different when kingdoms and empires were smaller—such as the medieval sort (e.g. the Swiss confederation and the Netherlands—both empires on a medieval scale but states in modern terms).  For China, the US, the EU and Russia, the extent of geography is a limitation on how much centralized authority is possible.  The Chinese government maintains one time zone for China, when there could easily be four or five.  In the case of Russia, such consolidation would mean that people in some places would be getting up and having breakfast in the middle of the night!   Even reducing the number of zones could make it more difficult on some, given the short duration of daylight in the winter.   Consider, for example, the trouble of going to and from daylight savings time in the US and EU.  Eliminating a few time zones in Russia would be to act as though a few hours difference doesn’t matter much.  The far east may already be two hours off of the correct biological time—meaning the most fitting with the human biological clock. 

In the end, the problem is one of consolidating an empire-scale polity.  Given the inherent heterogenuity involved in such an expanse, there are limitations in what can be done centrally.  Moscow can’t simply issue an order and expect that every Russian city will be awake and thus able to reply immediately.  Resentment toward central control in such cases (i.e., empires) is quite natural.  Indeed, proposals to modify the time zones have stirred deep suspicions, especially in the Far East and Siberia, where people have long resented Moscow, much the way people in places like Idaho distrust the goings-on in Washington.  So the issue is not simply one of whether time zones should be adjusted.  The tensions come when an empire seeks an inordinate amount of centralized control—more than that which is consistent with natural differences.  A consolidated empire on the modern scale (i.e., early-modern kingdoms being the scale of the units) is an artificial construction.   The time zones, I submit, should be oriented to biological clocks, while the federal system is given greater weight (i.e., more autonomy for the republics and regions).  “We have to look at this from a biological standpoint, how it is going to affect health,” said Yekaterina Degtyareva, 27, a personnel manager who lives in Novosibirsk, the most populous city in Siberia, and often travels to the Far East and Moscow. “If it is going to be a centralized, so-called totalitarian decision, then nothing good will come of it.”

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/world/europe/07zones.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=russia%20time&st=cse

A Nobel Peace Prize Awarded in 2009 Amid a Troop Surge: An Oxymoron?

Barak Obama was in December of 2009 the first sitting U.S. president in 90 years and the third ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet he did so under the long shadow of the war in Afghanistan, where he was ordering 30,000 more troops into battle.  Could Truman’s decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan be along the same logic because it was meant to preempt the loss of life that would have come had the US invaded Japan?  President Reagan’s peace through strength logic was that a military build-up would forestall or prevent war from breaking out (hence no loss of life would be involved even in the forestalling).   The logic of awarding a surge President with a peace prize seems more dubious.  However, few today would compliment Chamberlain for having appeased Hitler (even though the prime minister was secretly stalling for time to build up the British forces). Perhaps with the dangerous plans presumably being hatched in Afganistan in 2009 against American cities, it could be argued that a surge is preventative of future conflict.  However, such a logic introduces a slippery slope.   In other words, if the ends justify the means, then virtually anything can be justified as means as long as it is tied to the end.  Human beings have a rather creative ability to rationalize their expedient and self-serving actions.  It would be far simpler were the peace prize awarded to someone who clearly opposed war and did something about it without engaging in it himself; even so, there are few like Gandhi in any given generation, and far more leaders wage war in the supposed (or real) interests of peace.  I contend that there are in any year enough people who stand up for peace without engaging in war that the peace prize could be awarded to them. Such a policy would clearly distinguish such role models from the ends justify the means rationalizers rather than enable the latter under a subterfuge of peace.. 

Source: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34358659/ns/politics-white_house/

Bankers Writing Financial Reform Law: A Case of the Wolves Designing the Chicken Coop

The financial reform bill approved in December, 2009 by the US House of Representatives proposed to regulate the financial industry and keep firms from growing “too big to fail.” The bill can be likened to a ship made of Swiss cheeze, yet seemingly seaworthy. A key intention of the bill was to gain control over the vast market in “over the counter” derivatives by forcing trading onto open exchanges, where regulators can monitor it. Unregulated derivatives were behind much of the havoc that nearly brought down the financial system in 2008, including the subprime-mortgage-backed securities that put many firms underwater and the credit default swaps sold by AIG, the giant insurance company that sucked up about $180 billion in bailout money. The $592 trillion global market in these mostly unmonitored derivatives remained in 2009 among the most profitable businesses for the biggest banks—Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley—and Wall Street doesn’t want Washington tampering with it. Early versions of Frank’s bill allowed many derivatives to continue trading off exchanges. The bill, Frank wrote, “could be subject to manipulation” by “clever financial firms” seeking to evade a requirement that they trade derivatives on open exchanges.

The full essay is at "Bankers Writing Financial Reform Law."

TARP and Foreclosures: A Matter of Misplaced Priorities

Neil Kashkari wrote up the U.S. Treasury department’s Break the Glass Bank Recapitalization Plan in April, 2008—months before the financial crisis—as a “just in case.” It was essentially the TARP program.  Karshkari states in his plan that governmental purchases of toxic mortgage-based assets would do “nothing to help homeowners without [there being] a complimentary program.” He notes that should there be a crisis, “there would be enormous political pressure” for relief going to homeowners in trouble.  Considering the noted downside to his plan, he may have viewed any such pressure from “the masses” as a problem to be ignored rather than even assuaged.  He also admits in his plan that it would provide “no guarantee banks [would] resume lending.”  It is odd that his was made explicit yet not dealt with.  He does gloss an alternative option (C) that would involve refinancing the troubled mortgages, though he assumes a (needlessly cumbersome) case by case basis and that the servicers would determine which loans to put into the program.  The culprits could opt out to insist on the higher payments. In other words, Kashkari was assuming that the government shouldn’t or couldn’t force the banks to take write-downs.  As a former Goldman Sachs man himself (like his boss at the time, Henry Paulson), Kashkari probably didn’t want to propose anything that the bankers wouldn’t view as being in their interest.

The full essay is at "TARP and Foreclosures."
  • Obama's Meeting With the Top Bankers Shows Who's on Top Again

    When he was running for US President, Barak Obama said that the financial crisis provided an opportunity for financial system reform beyond that which is in the interest of the big banks because the power of the latter is temporarily eclipsed and the US Government can take advantage of that.  His assumption is that during normal times, the banking industry essentially owns the Congress (Sen Dick Durbin’s statement just after the banking lobby defeated a foreclosure bill in the US Senate in 2009).  Sadly, the government did not use the eclipse; rather, it has been using the appearance of power and direction in the relumed post-crisis period to engage in window-dressing to assuage populist anger at the banks.

     Asserting that it “is among the strongest banks in the industry,” Citigroup announced in December, 2009 that it would soon repay $20 billion of federal bailout money. This from a bank that was in the red for most of the preceding two years, that was expected to limp through 2010 amid a torrent of loan losses, that saw its stock price close after the announcement at a measly $3.70 a share — and that, like other big banks, was still reluctant to lend. Citigroup’s planned exit from the bailout — like Bank of America’s earlier this month — would be welcome if the banks were the picture of health. But their main motive was to get out from under the bailout’s pay caps and other restraints. Perhaps the bankers were motivated to attract talent;  perhaps they were acting in their personal financial interests.  The Treasury Department’s approval was a grim reminder of the political power of the banks, even as the economy they did so much to damage continued at the time to struggle and the banks have benefited from taxpayer money.

    Big bank profits, for instance, still came mostly courtesy of taxpayers. Their trading earnings were financed by more than a trillion dollars’ worth of cheap loans from the Federal Reserve, for which some of their most noxious assets were collateral. They benefitted from immense federal loan guarantees, but they were not lending much. Lending to business, notably, was very tight.  Barak Obama’s “urging” the banks to lend more to small business was not apt to be taken seriously by the big banks, given their financial power.   To exort banks to be good “corporate citizens” is only to twist “citzen” beyond its pale.

    Let’s be clear. Organizations are not citizens.  For one thing, they can’t vote.  Exxon can’t mail in its ballot for president.  Nor can it be drafted to fight (rather, it can receive military contracts; its lobby knows how to procure those).  Moreover, they are designed (real citizens are not “designed”) to retain income without limit.  Extrinsic normative claims on the organizational machines do not register in the corporate calculus unless there is a financial cost.

    Being called to the “woodshed” at a White House meeting is mere political theatre—something the bankers who bothered to attend in person must have known was something merely to sit through.  Some of the biggest recipients of taxpayers’ money, including Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, didn’t even bother making the extra effort to get there ahead of time to avoid the predictable winter weather that grounded their flights.  The acela train from NYC was running on time, yet the CEOs cited flight delays as making it impossible for them to attend in person.  Perhaps the CEOs correctly determined that Barak Obama’s meeting was mere political theatre.  The banking lobby was surely not being distracted from the financial reform legislation making its way through Congress.  That lobby has gained significant loopholes in the House’s passed bill (see my post on the House bill).  Aside from the loopholes (such as derivatives still not subject to regulation!), the apparently “strong” provisions of that bill are vulnerable to being gamed. The Senate, which is unlikely to pass its version of the deal until next year, should explore more direct measures, like banning banks beyond a certain size, measured by their liabilities. If we have learned anything over the last couple of years, it is that banks that are too big to fail pose too much of a risk to the economy. Any serious effort to reform the financial system must ensure that no such banks exist.  But can you imagine our elected officials having the guts to split up Goldman Sachs?  Can you imagine what that bank would do to avoid such a fate?  … and yet such private power is not a threat to a republic?   As voters, we are asleep at the wheel, too easily taken in by the theatrics of impotent politicians.

    In general terms, it is ironic that the banks too big to fail may be even more of a risk after the financial crisis.  What profits the banks have been making have come mostly from trading. Many big banks were happy to depend on the lifeline from the Fed and hang onto their toxic assets hoping for a rebound in prices.  Crucially in terms of the systemic risk in “too big to fail,” the whole system has grown more concentrated since the crisis. Bank of America was considered too big to fail before the meltdown. Since then, it has acquired Merrill Lynch. Wells Fargo took over Wachovia. And JPMorgan Chase gobbled up Bear Stearns.  If the goal is to reduce the number of huge banks that taxpayers must rescue at any cost, the US Goverment has been moving in the wrong direction. The growth of the biggest banks ensures that the next bailout will have to be even bigger. These banks will be more likely to take on excessive risk because they have the implicit assurance of rescue.  In short, there is even more systemic risk after the financial crisis of 2008.  Creating a new consumer protection agency is a feckless attempt by the US Government to show some muscle to face entrenched (and even more powerful) financial interests on Wall St.  Even giving the government the power to deal with banks deemed too risky to the financial market itself does not guarantee that the power will be used.  Consider, for example, the lack of enforcement of anti-trust law.  For a comparison, look at the EU—not only in terms of going after big companies like Microsoft, but big banker bonuses.   In the US, we much face the fact that the big banks are on top.  If what is good for Goldman Sachs or Citigroup is not necessarily good for us, the American people, then there is a tremendous systemic risk for us in being appeased by Barak Obama’s public “scolding” of Wall Street and by the Swiss-cheeze financial reform bill making its way through Congress.  Neither branch is taking seriously the question of the existence itself of the banks too big to fail.  Moreover, the question of whether large concentrations of private power have become a threat to our republic—on account not only of the ability of a big bank to shaft its customers, but also of the relative power of the banks and their lobby over our government—has effectively been sidelined.   It as as though popular sovereignty here means charting a ship’s course without looking beyond the bow.   Some of the wealthy passenagers have told us: don’t look out there!  Don’t ask the real questions!  And we, being reduced to unconscious herd animals, happily comply and stiffle our anguish because we feel the big banks have already won.

    How the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Makes Strategic Use of the Media

    Just as the US Senate was to take up the matter of Ben Bernanke’s re-appointment as Chair of the Federal Reserve in 2010, Time magazine came out with its announcement that he is to be its person of the year.  According to the magazine, “when turbulence in U.S. housing markets metastasized into the worst global financial crisis in more than 75 years, he conjured up trillions of new dollars and blasted them into the economy; engineered massive public rescues of failing private companies; ratcheted down interest rates to zero; lent to mutual funds, hedge funds, foreign banks, investment banks, manufacturers, insurers and other borrowers who had never dreamed of receiving Fed cash; jump-started stalled credit markets in everything from car loans to corporate paper; revolutionized housing finance with a breathtaking shopping spree for mortgage bonds; blew up the Fed’s balance sheet to three times its previous size; and generally transformed the staid arena of central banking into a stage for desperate improvisation. He didn’t just reshape U.S. monetary policy; he led an effort to save the world economy.”  Not to be outdone in service to the Chairman, CNN furnished its own reporters, who gave credit to Bernanke for these measures.  Interestingly, however, even though one reporter admitted that Bernanke had said in 2007 that the subprime market and its derivatives would not threaten the financial market and the banks, she attributed the fault there to the imperfections in the market rather than to Bernanke himself in being wrong.   So, he gets credit for cleaning up the mess (ignoring the foreclosed homeowners) but not the blame for being wrong about the contagion (and not urging regulation of the derivatives).  He could have urged the regulation of derivatives (he is a smart person), and once the crisis occurred, he could have tailored his response to the homeowners facing foreclosures that could have been stopped. For example, the Fed could have created dollars to subsidize the inordinate rates on the variable rate subprime mortgages (i.e. those bank assets would not have been toxic and the banks’ balance sheets would have been fine…two birds with one stone…rather than doing the bidding of one of the parties).  To be sure, if the Fed is inordinately friendly to banks because of the power they have in selecting their regulators (the NY Fed Chair’s appointing committee consists of bankers), then Bernanke might have simply been playing the good politics for staying in office.   “Our ships must all sail in the same direction; otherwise who can tell how long you will…last…with us.” (The Godfather, part III)  Bernanke is a player from the perspective of the real power behind the throne: America’s financial elite.  That elite literally owns the media companies. So what I want to point out here is that the timing of Time’s announcement and the asymetry in CNN’s laudatory coverage of the Chairman just as the Senate was about to consider his re-appointment led me almost instinctually to  be convinced that coincidence was not the driver here.  The Chairman undoubtedly had some powerful friends in the media who were giving him a publicity offensive, or campaign, just in time for the Senate debate on whether to appoint him.

    Through all the admiration of this person of 2009, it should be remembered that he did not urge the regulation of sub-prime derivatives issued or held by the banks regulated by the Fed.  He was wrong about the subprime housing bubble being contained.  And he failed to protect homeowners sufficiently.  If the media was being used by the Fed Chair in his re-appointment campaign, it could be that what we are fed by CNN, Fox, MSNBC and the main network newscasts is not really as neutral or beyond their control as we think.   News as a campaign.  News because it is in some powerful actor’s vested interests.  While there is certainly coincidence in life, an alignment such as I have outlined here is far too transparent—or at least it ought to be.

    The subtext here is that we, the American people, have become too much the pawns even as we think we are not.  The illusion of popular sovereignty is that we are in control.   I don’t think we have any idea of the extent to which we are manipulated by the powers that transcend our elected representatives and their appointees.  It is no wonder that real change does not get beyond the interests of the real power in America, whose interest is in the status quo or at best in an incremental change.   Essentially, we have allowed the anti-democratic power to concentrate to a degree that is dangerous to a functioning republic (i.e., a representative democracy).  We should not be surprised to find that powerful actors are operating at a subterranean level where transparency is intentionally lacking.    How do we get it back, you ask?  Hah!   We would have to see it first—realize its extent and depth—and I’m not holding my breath that enough people will wake up to see the light.

    Too many of us are ensconced in Plato’s cave, taking what the puppets say for reality.  As Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, “You want answers? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”    Even if we could stomach the emetic manipulation behind the scenes that is directed to us (and even our representatives—when they aren’t doing it themselves), we would have to be able to see it—and it is so well hidden.  We can only grasp at straws…confluences that seem like more than coincidences.  As a member of the black caucus of the US House (surprisingly) said to a reporter of Frontline on the TARP program passing the House just days after it had been voted down by that same body, “You have no idea how powerful the anti-democratic forces are here.”    You and I get only glimpses.  The puppets seem more real so we believe in them.   Please don’t take my thesis to be that there is one huge orchastrated conspiracy; rather, I’m simply suggesting that our system of representative democracy does not seem to be able to sufficiently constrain the invisible powers that are pulling strings without being accountable to the public power.  It is my ardent hope that the people will look beyond the status quo in voting for candidates—perhaps getting back to citizen representatives who do their duty then return to their preferred occupations—that we would elect people sufficiently principled and not desirous of a life in power to be willing to take on the financial power.   Do I think it will happen?  Sadly, no.  I’m sorry, but I just don’t think we have it in us…or we don’t have enough of what it would take to confront that which is in us that favors comfort and sleep.   In the story of the rise and fall of empires, the United States is not exempt.  The culprit, as with most things, lies within.   It is ultimately about what kind of people too many of us are.  Such a thing is very, very difficult to change, let alone see.  Decadence tends to be invisible to itself.

    Note: A day after CNN covered the announcement, the Senate finance committee debated and voted on Bernanke’s re-appointment. See http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34463144/ns/business-stocks_and_economy/

     Source: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1946375_1947251,00.html#ixzz0Zs8WgpV1

    National Sovereignty Eclipsing Climate Change

    Barak Obama announced after he left the UN global climate conference at Copenhagen in 2009 that five major nations—the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa—had together forged a climate deal. He called it “an unprecedented breakthrough” but acknowledgedoted that the agreement was merely a political statement and not a legally binding treaty and might not need ratification by the entire conference.  Essentially, it was merely a statement of the five countries’ respective goals, as if someone had announced, “I want to lose ten pounds.”   The political statement did not meet even the modest expectations that leaders set for this meeting, notably by failing to set a 2010 goal for reaching a binding international treaty to seal the provisions of the accord.  Nor does the plan firmly commit the industrialized nations or the developing nations to firm targets for midterm or long-term greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

    This is not stopping the spin that the conference was a success. Obama, for example, said, “For the first time in history, all major economies have come together to accept their responsibility to take action to confront the threat of climate change.” To be sure, the accord does provide a system for monitoring and reporting progress toward those national pollution-reduction goals, a compromise on an issue over which China bargained hard, and it calls for hundreds of billions of dollars to flow from wealthy nations to those countries most vulnerable to a changing climate.  That is, the political statement is not a binding treaty, but the document does lay out a framework for verification of emissions commitments by developing countries and for establishing a “high-level panel” to assess financial contributions by rich nations to help poor countries adapt to climate change and limit their emissions. Lastly, it sets a goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2050, implying deep cuts in climate-altering emissions over the next four decades.

    However, in a news conference, Barak Obama said the accord was only a tentative start down a long road. The accord sets no goal for concluding a binding international treaty, which leaves the implementation of its provisions uncertain. In other words, any developing country can opt in or out of the monitored pot of money, and China may well still view the monitoring aspect as voluntary—meaning to be determined by the Chinese Government what can be examined.  The Chinese had been intransigent on the matter of verification by non-Chinese.  Citing national sovereignty, the Chinese had claimed that the rest of the world should take Chinese law as being a sufficient basis for verification.  This, I submit, is an extremely odd proposition—that people extrinsic to China should rely on Chinese law when the legitimacy of such law stops at the country’s borders.  The statement is telling because it demonstrates how antiquated the Bodinian notion of absolute national sovereignty is in the modern world.  The interdependence occasioned not only by global warming, but also nuclear proliferation and an increasingly global financial system, makes an insistance on the absoluteness of national sovereignty an extremely dangerous proposition.   The fecklessness of the Chinese approach to “verification” and the resulting diluted “political statement” (rather than a treaty) coming out of the conference suggest that we urgently need to thwart the historical insistance from our global vocabulary and institutions. 

    The immediate implication is that the veto in the UN Security Council is no longer legitimate.  Further on, the binding nature of international law backed up by international governance structures that do not include vetos needs to be developed and applied to the domains determined to be rightfully global.  Countries still insisting on the absoluteness of their national sovereignties, such as China on pollution-controls and the US on international criminal law, would have to bend or be boycotted by the rest of the world.   In other words, international relations and economic exchanges ought to be dependent on being subject to a governance structure beyond the nation-state.  If China is left as the only country insisting that nothing can supervene Chinese law, then no one in the world should have anything to do with that country.   In contrast, those subject to a governance structure that supervenes in particular enumerated powers (with sufficient safeguards against their encroachment…given the history of the US) should be able to enjoy benefits beyond the binding nature of such powers, such as privileged positions in trade and visas.   I would argue that governments that insist that their law is insurmountable deserve to be marginalized by the rest of the world.  I write this as an American knowing that the US may well be marginalized under this scenerio unless there is some movement on international criminal law (i.e., being subject to the International Criminal Court, which in turn would be given the ability to go into any country and extract defendants).  

    The technological development during the twentieth century means that political development is necessary in the twenty-first century.  We are so used to viewing change in terms of technology that we are perhaps unaccustomed to the sort of change that should ensue in order to obviate the new dangers from the technology.   In other words, we need to shift gears in terms of the domains wherein change is expected or thought to occur.   In some respects, we are still in the dark ages, and being in the dark when the planet could come to an equilibrium unsuitable for human habitation—whether via carbon or radioactivity—represents a level of danger that ought to move us to action against the default of national sovereignty.  In some respects, we are so primitive; we tend not to see this because we identify change and development with technology.

    Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/19/science/earth/19climate.html?_r=1&hp