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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.


Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/18/world/middleeast/18bahrain.html?hp
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/us/17wisconsin.html?ref=todayspaper
http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/02/16/us/WISCONSIN-8.html (poster of Mubarak and Walker at the protests in Wisconsin)
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/19/us/19wisconsin.html?pagewanted=2&hp
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.

Climatic Presumption: What is the Forecast?

Al Gore stated that we face a choice regarding whether the earth’s ecological system will remain viable for our species.  He cites the carbon that is frozen in the permafrost in the north.  As the permafrost melts, carbon is added to the atmosphere, making it “difficult” for the human species to live.   I am not a scientist so I have no means of knowing what the state of the research is on these matters.  Nor am I particularly interested in debating it.   In my view, if there is a chance that we could be effectively ending our our species, we ought not to be held back from acting in a prudent fashion even if it is “just in case.”   I understand the economic costs, and that some are particularly attached to short-run costs (and less enamoured with long-term benefits).  Still, that the debate itself would be allowed to stall even a “just in case” response reflects badly on our species.   At a worse case, it could be something like two parents debating which of them will get their baby out of their burning house.  Meanwhile, the baby burns.   We would call that a dysfunctional family, would we not?  Still, no such appellation goes to those involved in the continuing debate on climate change.
It strikes me that we as a society may be too innured in our own presumptuousness to even realize how badly we are handling such decisions.  I can’t believe that the society is predominantly made up of the two, rather vocal, extremes on the matter.  The extremes are presumptuous in their determination to continue the debate unless they get exactly what they want while the rest of us have been guilty of allowing them to dominate the decision-making process.  Consider, for example, a reasonable person saying, “ok, we need to make a decision,” and one is made.  The refusal to make compromises (whether an extreme in the US following a rigid ideological agenda or the Chinese government presuming that national sovereignty is absolute) is not only childish, it is rather arrogant concerning that the eventual demise of our species might hang in the balance.  Even this “might” should be a wakeup call that posturing and debating evince a selfishness that the rest of us ought not to countenance.  Yet we do.  We are too passive, those of us without a dog in the fight.   The truth is, we all have a dog in this fight.  Are we to be survived by cockroaches?   Wouldn’t it be fodder for a divine comedy were the antics of the cockroaches superior to the presumptuousness of humans?   The species left standing is the one that wins.  

I can visualize a later generation (of humans) looking back at our generation as incredibly selfish and incompetent even to reach a decision.  “They knew what might hang in the balance, and yet they were so caught up in their own petty circumstances.”   It is like we are captains on the Titanic debating which way to turn after it being reasonable to believe that there is an iceberg somewhere ahead.   It could even be that we see the iceberg and still we debate.  Such pettifoggery is mere dribble in the divine comedy that may well already be in Act III.  

We are so small, even smaller than the cockroach, and yet we presume ourselves to be so big.  We we to have the distance of perspective such that our immediate pathos would not blind us, how would we view our society…ourselves?

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

Joe Biden: Thankfully not the Flavor of the Month

The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a feature toward the end of 2009 on Joe Biden, who was then Vice President of the United States.  Besides his experience and knowledge from having been a seasoned U.S. senator, Joe Biden is a man genuinely content in his own skin, and, it might be said, genuinely happy.  This, perhaps more than anything else, is vital to high level public official because sound judgment is important in those jobs. Ruling is not simply about how much one knows, or even how much experience one has; it is fundamentally about feeling at ease in who one is.  Ultimately, a positive vision springs from one’s state of mind and innate values.  One need only contrast Joe Biden with Richard Nixon, for example. Foreign policy comes up for both, but their mentalities could not be different.

My question is this: to what extent is our “Electoral College as popular election” geared to selecting the best candidate for president?  If the most popular is apt to be a people-pleaser, how comfortable is he (or she) likely to be in his (or her) own skin?  Furthermore, is the most popular necessarily seasoned with experience?  In short, if our current mechanism for selecting the president is oriented to privileging the flavor of the day, is this really the way we want to pick our presidents?    When we see a people-pleasing president cave to the business interests for support because popularity is not a sufficient basis of legitmacy, should we really be surprised?   What I see is a seasoned and knowledgeable vice president who is generally happy and getting along with people at the White House and in Congress, yet he did not do well at all in the popularity contests (i.e., the primaries).   I suggest that we have it backwards if we assume that Joe Biden is best as vice president because he did not fare well in the electoral contest.  As a case in point, he has been urging restraint in acquiescing to the pressure to add troops to Afganistan.  He wants a narrow focus, rather than a sensationalistic “surge.”  I suspect that he would stand up to big business and the military were he president because he wouldn’t need their approval to be content in his own skin.  Were he president, I suspect he wouldn’t need a second term.  Could that be said of a person who relishes popularity?

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/magazine/29Biden-t.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=joe%20biden&st=cse

Dubai Bankers and Responsibility: A Question of Presumed Complicity

Reacting to the debt troubles of Dubai World (which was carrying $59 billion in debt in 2009), the director general of the Dubai Department of Finance, Abdulrahman al-Saleh, said  “Creditors need to take part of the responsibility for their decision to lend to the companies. They think Dubai World is part of the government, which is not correct.”  This sentence strikes me as odd.  Al-Saleh was suggesting that in deciding to make a loan to a company, a banker takes a risk, which entails the possibility of working with the company if it comes up short in cash.  Is such flexibility in the vocabulary of the typical loan officer, much less in the culture of major banks?  I doubt it.

On the same week that Dubai World’s problems were being made public, the Obama administration announced plans to pressure mortgage companies to reduce payments for many more troubled homeowners, as evidence was mounting that a $75 billion government-financed effort to stem foreclosures was foundering.  "The banks are not doing a good enough job,” Michael S. Barr, Treasury’s assistant secretary for financial institutions, said in an interview. “Some of the firms ought to be embarrassed, and they will be.”  Even as lenders had accelerated the pace at which they were reducing mortgage payments for borrowers, a vast majority of loans modified through the program remained in a trial stage lasting up to five months, and only a tiny fraction had been made permanent. Mr. Barr said that the government would try to use shame as a corrective, publicly naming those institutions that move too slowly to permanently lower mortgage payments.  However, shaming is not the only weapon in the government’s arsenal. 

The Treasury Department waited until reductions were permanent before paying cash incentives that it had promised to mortgage companies that lowered loan payments. “They’re not getting a penny from the federal government until they move forward,” Mr. Barr said.  A week after Barr’s statement, the Treasury Department said it would withhold payments from mortgage companies that weren't doing enough to make the changes permanent. ”We now must refocus our efforts on the conversion phase to ensure that borrowers and servicers know what their responsibilities are in converting trial modifications to permanent ones,” Phyllis Caldwell, who was named to lead the Treasury Department’s homeownership preservation office, said in a statement.  So here we find that dreaded word—responsibility—as if it applied to the mortgage issuers as well as the homeowners.  Considering Senator Dick Durbin’s statement that the banking industry owns Congress (which he said after the industry’s lobby effectively scuttled a bill to allow judges to adjust mortgage terms for homeowners in trouble—even as the banks played a role in the bad mortgages), it is not surprising that even two years later, little benefit had come to mortgage borrowers from the U.S. Government, even as the banks had been rescued by TARP funds.

The banking industry has been more powerful, even though it was at least partially complicit in the crisis. Of course, Wall Street bankers have instinctively resisted claims that they were part of the problem that led to the financial crisis in September of 2008. Al-Saleh’s admonition to lenders that the bankers in his country step up to the plate was ignored in favor of the mantra, “it's the other guy’s fault so why should I pay?  I'm not budging.”  This is the mentality of a spoiled child.  The rest of us don’t see it as such when it applies to people in expensive suits because we are too impressed with the trappings of money and power.  As long as bankers get away with making their own rules in the halls of governments, the power ties will remain as though undisciplined children.

Sources: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/30/business/global/30dubai.html?ref=world ; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/business/economy/29modify.html?scp=1&sq=pressure%20mortgage%20companies&st=Search ; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34204856/ns/business-real_estate/

Knee-Jerk Reactions: On the U.S. Government Enabling Dictators

While in the U.S. Senate, Paul Kirk, the interim U.S. Senator who took Ted Kennedy’s seat, said, “Without a legitimate and credible Afghan partner, that counterinsurgency strategy is fundamentally flawed. The current Afghan government is neither legitimate nor credible. . . . We should not send a single additional dollar in aid or add a single American serviceman or woman to the 68,000 already courageously deployed in Afghanistan until we see a meaningful move by the Karzai regime to root out its corruption.” 

Kirk was essentially arguing that the U.S. was enabling (i.e., in the sense that one enables an alcoholic) President Karzai, who had been reelected by widespread fraud. Whether the U.S. Government was trying to have it both ways, or was utterly unwilling to put its money where American principles are, the perception around the world was probably that the United States had sold itself out for short-term strategic/military advantage. 

How resilient are principles that are upheld only when they don't cost anything?  Could it be that standing more on principle--insisting on fair and free elections as a precondition for any American aid and military involvement--would mitigate the need for a surge? Such thinking runs against the grain in the modern world, which is actually rather primitive in its insistance on knee-jerk force.  An eye for an eye and the world will be blind (Gandhi).  September 11, 2001: we must hit back.  There is no other option. They must pay. Ironically, practicing Christians were not only cheering, but also leading the charge.  An eye for an eye.

“Be realistic!” you might say.  "It's a real world out there!" Ok, how about this: the U.S. Government could have concentrated its military force in Afghanistan on the actual culprits, rather than on rebuilding the country or taking on the Taliban.  Is it really so idealistic to cut off U.S. aid to autocratic governments? I suspect that we are limited by the status quo as a normative and descriptive limitation that is actually quite dogmatic in the sense of being arbitrary.  In other words, we believe our self-constructed walls are real; we don't see how rigid we have become.

Given the emphasis on force, does it make all that much difference who is occupying the U.S. Presidency? President Bush invaded Iraq. President Obama criticized this policy then led a surge of his own in Afghanistan.  Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex, and both Bush II and Obama played ball with these pay-masters.  Meanwhile, we were mollified with the government's “scoldings” of Wall Street banks (the strongest of which went back to their old ways anyway).  Can we blame the bankers for ignoring government officials whose principled leadership is so contingent? People, especially powerful people--like Wall Street bankers and Karzai--can sniff hypocrisy and automatically reduce the respect given.

The United States is like a giant machine, or a very fat person, who can only move slowly…turning woefully slow with a rudder that is too small.    Meanwhile, we vaunt our ship as the biggest ever made: A city on the hill, from Puritan lore. We can’t sink, we assure each other.  But our ship of state is made of iron. I assure you, it can sink, and all the more because we have drifted out into deep water without realizing how far we have gone…how far off course.  Our rudder is too small for our mechanized monstrosity--our Titanic laden with $14 tillion in federal debt alone (not counting those of the states). Our primative knee-jerk reactiong after 911 suggests that everything we know is wrong, even as we presume we can’t be wrong.   So as we rearrange the deck-chairs at our mascurade dance, we order more champaigne and congraduate each other on having the biggest ship.  Meanwhile, is anyone looking ahead for icebergs?  We are so sure of our ship, and thus so vulnerable.

Source:

Brianna Keilar, "Obama Ally Breaks with Him on Afghanistan," CNN, December 2, 2009.

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

An Ethical Dilemma for Cell-Phone Companies? Drivers Who Text & Talk

Long before cellphones became ubiquitous, industry pioneers were aware of the risks of multitasking behind the wheel. Their hunches have been validated by many scientific studies showing the dangers of talking while driving and, in 2009, of texting. Despite the mounting evidence, the industry built itself into a $150 billion business in the United States largely by winning over a crucial customer: the driver. For years, it marketed the virtues of cellphones to drivers. Indeed, the industry originally called them car phones and extolled them as useful status symbols in ads, like one from 1984 showing an executive behind the wheel that asked: Can your secretary take dictation at 55 MPH? “That was the business,” said Kevin Roe, a telecommunications industry analyst since 1993. Wireless companies “designed everything to keep people talking in their cars.” The CTIA, the industry’s trade group, supported legislation banning texting while driving. It has also changed its stance on legislation to ban talking on phones while driving — for years, it opposed such laws; then it became neutral. “This was never something we anticipated,” Mr. Largent, head of the CTIA, said in 2009.  However, Bob Lucky, an executive director at Bell Labs from 1982-92, said he knew that drivers talking on cellphones were not focused fully on the road. But he did not think much about it or discuss it and supposed others did not, either, given the industry’s booming fortunes. “If you’re an engineer, you don’t want to outlaw the great technology you’ve been working on,” said Mr. Lucky, now 73. “If you’re a marketing person, you don’t want to outlaw the thing you’ve been trying to sell. If you’re a C.E.O., you don’t want to outlaw the thing that’s been making a lot of money.” One researcher who spoke up about his concerns was quickly shut down. In 1990, David Strayer, a junior researcher at GTE, which later became part of Verizon, noticed more drivers who seemed to be distracted by their phones, and it scared him. He asked a supervisor if the company should research the risks. “Why would we want to know that?” Mr. Strayer recalled being told. He said the message was clear: “Learning about distraction would not be very helpful to the overall business model.” So why did the industry lobby turn to neutral in 2009, when it had for years resisted any governmental regulation on cell phones? 

It is important to remember the rationale of the “overall business model” so we don’t project some sort of fuzzy corporate social responsibility motive.   The industry’s shift to neutral matches a trend in its bottom line:  in the 1980s and early ’90s, wireless companies got 75 percent or more of their revenue from drivers, a figure that fell below 50 percent by the mid-’90s and is by 2009 below 25 percent.  The negative publicity on cellphones from distracted drivers killing people could cost the industry more (in dollars and cents) than what it could otherwise make by selling phones to more drivers.     Public affairs offices and industry lobby groups are simply reflections of the financial interest of the “business model.”   We ought not be fooled, as if an industry suddenly sees the light and does what is right.  Of course, it is in the financial interest of an industry to have us view it as such, but this is of course just more of the same.   Remember that the cell phone industry had reason to know of the problem of distracted drivers but ignored it in following a single-minded profit trajectory.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/07/technology/07distracted.html?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 the Financial Law: 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 story of how those loopholes got into the derivatives bill, even with Frank at the helm and the wind of public outrage at his back, shows just how powerful the Wall Street banking lobby remained nonetheless—and just how complex Wall Street’s financial instruments had become. Many of the key lobbyists were in 2009 in the same gang that helped get us into this mess before, and they were spending huge sums a year after the near meltdown. In the first three quarters of 2009, financial-industry interests  spent $344 million on lobbying efforts, putting them on pace to break all records. This did not include political donations and issue ads. Even more impressive was the lobbying strategy that money was buying. The banks sought to stay in the background and put their corporate customers—a who’s who of American business, including Apple, Whirlpool, and John Deere—out in front of the campaign. “This is an orchestrated, well-funded effort by the banks to manipulate our legislation and leave no fingerprints,” says a congressional staffer involved in drafting the legislation. The financial industry argued that curbs on derivatives do hurt just Wall Street, but also the corporations in Main Street America—the “end users” —that need them to hedge risks.  However, the more custom-made and out of public sight a derivative is, the harder it is for investors—and regulators—to assess its fair value and real risk. This makes it easier for the banks to charge a large “spread” and earn big profits. Frank heatedly denied that he'd been fooled, though he conceded he was catching up on some of the details of the bills he was pushing through. “I’ve become responsible for dealing with a lot of things that are new to me. I didn’t have a great deal of knowledge. I’ve been relying on a whole lot of people,” Frank said. In allowing some exemptions from exchange trading, Frank said he was merely accommodating the corporate end users—not Wall Street—who want to continue doing these private trades in derivatives.  The Wall Street lobby didn’t give up. After Frank had toughened up his stance on derivatives, the lobby tried to redefine what certain kinds of exchanges do.

The money that the industry can use to mollify congressional critics and bolster allies was not the only problem. The problem was even more intractable. Both Frank and his staff (and the corresponding committee in the US Senate) relied on the expertise of the banking industry in the fashioning of regulation for the industry.  Frank admitted that he didn’t know enough to keep on top of the drafts submitted by the industry (and end-users).  Additionally, it was difficult for him and his staff to assess where the industry’s “recommendations” were more “convenient” (meaning self-serving for the banks) than informational.   The financial instruments (e.g., derivatives based on mortgages) were at the time so complicated that congressional staffers who wrote the legislation depended on drafts submitted by the industry itself without being able to adequately screen them for bias.  There is an inherent conflict of interest in an industry even providing information. Therefore, I wonder whether the practice was worth its benefits to congressional staffers. 

The case seems to me like that of having a wolf provide the sketches for the design of the chicken koop, as if the design were an objective plan without any holes.   Even so, without the information from the industry with the vested interest, legislative staffs often do not feel competent to legislate on the complex markets of modern finance.  Indeed, they may not be, given the complexity out there.  But that is not a given.  We miss this point. To reduce the informational asymetry, Congress could direct that the markets be simplified to what they and the regulatory agencies could understand and thus regulate effectively. Opponents of the House bill claimed that the changes ensuing from the bill would limit consumer choice and stunt financial market innovation. Shortly after the House bill passed, President Obama suggested these risks are worth taking.

While applauding House passage of overhaul legislation, the President expressed frustration with banks that were helped by a taxpayer bailout and even as they were “fighting tooth and nail with their lobbyists” against new government controls.  The bank lobbyists spent more than $300 million in 2009 trying to scuttle the bill.  This alone should be enough to shut every congressional office to the lobbyists.  How widespread is the fecklessness!  As the wake of the bill’s passage, Obama said the economy was only then beginning to recover from the “irresponsibility” of Wall Street institutions that “gambled on risky loans and complex financial products” in pursuit of short-term profits and big bonuses with little regard for long-term consequences. “Americans don’t choose to be victimized by mysterious fees, changing terms and pages and pages of fine print. And while innovation should be encouraged, risky schemes that threaten our entire economy should not,” he said. “We can’t afford to let the same phony arguments and bad habits of Washington kill financial reform and leave American consumers and our economy vulnerable to another meltdown.”

So where were our legislators on this point?  Missing in action, most of them.  However much Obama's remarks can serve as a palliative, it must be admitted that the President could have gotten on the banks and refuse to sign a final bill containing deflating loopholes gained by the efforts of the lobby with a vested interest in the legislation.   I don’t believe the President would have risked his re-election contributions from Wall Street by telling Congress to be firmer in resisting the banker taskmasters.  Hence, the U.S. Government is unlikely to take on the very existence of the banks too big to fail even as the most profitable of them quickly returned to risky trading on their own accounts.

Too often, congressional legislators (and the President) wince when it counts, ignoring the inherent conflict of interest in the industry’s warning of Armegeddon.  We need to accept the fact that ery reform has a cost, and that “reform” does not mean “catastrophe.”  If we capitulate to the wolves because there might be a cost otherwise, we miss the greater cost in capitulating.  That cost is not only economic, for it includes the selling of ourselves and our government to the highest bidder and the loudest bully.  When I look around the world, I see fecklessness at home.

By comparison, the British and French states of the E.U. set a 50% windfall tax on ALL banker bonuses within their respective states.   Throughout the U.S., it has been difficult simply dealing with the bonuses of the bankers at the banks that were bailed out; we were so afraid that the credit markets would collapse from a tax or that we shouldn’t touch the other bonuses.  Treasury limited the cash compensation for executives at companies that received the largest taxpayer bailouts to $500,000 and delayed some other payouts. The 25th through the 100th top earners at Citigroup, GMAC, American International Group and General Motors had to take more than half their compensation in stock, and at least half had to be delayed for three or more years. About 12 executives were granted exemptions to the $500,000 cash cap because they were necessary for the companies to “thrive, be able to compete, and not lose key people.”  The European industry-wide approach was stronger, and less apt to result in “talent poaching” that was likely to occur where only TARP reciprients are targeted.

Why is that we were convinced that we couldn't or shouldn’t go beyond the TARP reciprients in limiting exorbitant executive compensation?  Is imposing compensation (in all its forms) limits to protect the market from firms too big to fail really beyond the pale?  Is it really so much a threat to economic freedom? Certainly, it is a legitimate role of a government to protect the viability of the market.  The lack of any enacted windfall tax on bank bonuses (or compensation) in the Congress in 2009 or 2010 intimates the subterranean power of Wall Street in Washington.  Indeed, according to The New York Times, “heeding complaints from banks, the House rejected an effort to allow bankruptcy judges to restructure mortgage payments, a plan that has passed the House before but not the Senate.”  When the same thing happened in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Dick Durbin said publically that the banking lobby owns Congress.  House members also agreed to relax some of the proposed new controls on trading in derivatives. Rather than subject all over-the-counter derivatives to open trading, the bill would have subjected such derivatives only if they were traded between Wall Street firms, or with a major player like AIG. But the transactions between dealers and customers will remain largely hidden, so customers will not be able to compare the prices they are being charged with the prices charged to other customers.  That’s nice for the banks.  We miss this point, paying attention instead to speeches.  Words.

We are not keeping our eyes on the ball, folks; rather, we all too easily allow ourselves to get distracted.  In watering down financial reform, we agree to construct fake walls  on what reform is viable and constructive.  We convince ourselves that we must play inside the pen because insiders have told us that we should. We take harsh words against the pen on our behalf as tantamount to tearing it down.   In actuality, the words are a subterfuge meant to assuage us so we don’t vote differently in the future.  The wolves know that mere words can’t tear down the walls they have directed our representatives to observe.  We have become like herd animals, and our leaders like subterfuges.  It is no wonder that “real change” contrary to the vested interests has been restrained at best.  If a new consumer protection agency is the high-water mark of reform (i.e., banks too big to fail being allowed to go on…even as they have returned to risky trades for much of their 2009 income), we really do deserve the next financial crisis.  …or can a speech going after the financial industry obviate such a thing from happening again?

Sources: http://www.newsweek.com/id/225781 ; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/11/business/global/11bonus.html?_r=1&ref=world ; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34380551/ns/business-us_business/ ; http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/12/business/12regulate.html?_r=1&ref=business ; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34393630/ns/politics-white_house/

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."
  • Paul Samuelson: The Model 20th Century Economist

    Paul A. Samuelson, the first American Nobel laureate in economics and the foremost academic economist of the 20th century, died at the end of 2009 at 94.  Samuelson was credited with changing the academic discipline of economics, according to The New York Times,  ”from one that ruminates about economic issues to one that solves problems, answering questions about cause and effect with mathematical rigor and clarity.”  Essentially, he redefined twentieth century economics. Mathematics had already been employed by social scientists, but Dr. Samuelson brought the discipline into the mainstream of economic thinking. His early work, for example, presented a unified mathematical structure for predicting how businesses and households alike would respond to changes in economic forces, how changes in wage rates would affect employment, and how tax rate changes would affect tax collections.  He developed the rudimentary mathematics of business cycles with a model, called the multiplier-accelerator, that captured the inherent tendency of market economies to fluctuate.  Mathematical formuli that Wall Street analysts use to trade options and other complicated securities (derivatives) have come from his work (FYI: derivatives too complicated for outsiders such as the government to understand/regulate were at the center of the financial crisis in 2008).

    While The New York Times article covers his career in a positive light, I believe the picture is more complicated—and telling of twentieth-century American society.  At the surface, the tale seems to center on a dichotomy—the Keynesian liberal against his conservative monetarist friend, Milton Friedman.  Perhaps the principal issue between them was whether market equilibrium could rest at full employment (i.e., without government help).  Samuelson’s own work on the inherent volitility of markets would suggest that the market mechanism does not necessarily reach an equilibrium, even at less than full employment.  As we saw in September of 2008, a market can collapse from within.  I am reminded of Alan Greenspan’s testimony before Congress shortly thereafter, when he admitted a fundamental flaw in his free market paradigm assumptions.  Clearly, more thought is needed into the nature of a market and how its basic contours can be altered; government regulation alone is not sufficient.

    Unfortunately, such “big picture” theorizing was on the wan in twentieth-century economic thought, which focused on narrow problems using technical tools such as mathematical formulas.  To be sure, Samuelson’s technical work gives us reassurance that the market contains a fluctuating element.  However, the reform of an economic system at a basic level is not simply the sum of a bunch of smaller solved problems.   I submit that while mathematics is useful for problem-solving, more is needed to understand our economic system and alter the basic contours of the market mechanism.

      Fundamentally, none of the social sciences is really a science.  To presume the certainty of natural science onto any of them is inherently limited and potentially risky.  To be sure, value can be gained from applying quantitative tools to look at limited problems, but the inherent indeterminacy of human macro systems makes the scientific approach ultimately futile from the macro standpoint of the social “sciences.”  Their phenomena, in other words, are not of the sort that can be measured andpredicted like the speed of a comet in space or a chemical reaction in the isolated environment of a lab.  Economic, social and political systems just aren’t like that.   Explanation, rather than prediction, is primary where human indeterminacy is so salient.

    Another way of relativising the “mathematical problem-solving” orientation of 20th century economics is to look at different levels of thinking.  In the wake of the problem-solving orientation, business schools regularly tout “critical thinking,” which is really just problem-solving.  You wouldn’t know it, but higher forms of thinking do exist—namely, synthetic and analytical reasoning.   To treat problem-solving as the litmus test for a discipline is to reduce that discipline from what it could be, academically speaking; it is to short-change it by forcing it into the low-ceilinged box of practicality.  It is to put blinders on. Samuelson’s mathematical axis inadvertantly made the discipline of economics more oriented to solve particular problems than it had been in the past.  Consider by contrast the work of Smith, Marx, Hayak, and Veblen—not a plus or minus sign among them, yet their work addresses economic at the level of systems.  Moreover, their thought transcends mathmatic problem-solving.

    I am not dismissing the value of solving specific problems, and Dr. Samuelson deserves credit for providing the tools for it; rather, I am suggesting that the legacy of the twentieth century in general and economic “science” in particular might be a reductionism to a technical orientation to solve particular problems.  That is to say, empiricism as hegemonic.  Problem-solving as the principal activity (and reasoning).  Such an orientation is rather narrow, and therefore not apt to survive on top indefinitely.  The “big picture” questions raised by the financial crisis of 2008 include matters like “too big to fail” and the viability of the market-mechanism itself that go beyond solving particular problems.  So I would not be surprised if a return to the theoretical economy (and political economy, for mathematics in the latter has been part of the wedge that has artificially disected the two) were not too far off.   The twentieth-century is leaving us.  I for one have few regrets over its passing; I think it will go down in history as decadent (meaning decaying from within..the 1970’s being its epitome).  What Samuelson did for economics is more a function of his era than anything else.   Such value is limited.

    Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/14/business/economy/14samuelson.html?

    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