Sunday, March 22, 2009

Obama Toxic?

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Toxic R Us

By Maureen Dowd

It’s an image that could have come straight out of a McCain campaign ad: Barack Obama growing organic arugula at the White House.

But there was Michelle on Friday, the first day of spring, with a bunch of fifth graders, digging a veggie garden on the South Lawn.

She told The Times there would not be beets, because her husband doesn’t like them, but there would be arugula. And she promised that the entire Obama family, including the president, would go out and pull weeds, “whether they like it or not.”

The tableau of Michelle Obama hoisting a pitchfork on Friday with her sinewy arms and warning that the commander in chief would be commandeered into yard work left me wondering if the wrong Obama is in the Oval.

It’s a time in America’s history where we need less smooth jazz and more martial brass.

Barack Obama prides himself on consensus, soothing warring sides into agreement. But the fury directed at the robber barons by the robbed blind in America has been getting hotter, not cooler. And that’s because the president and his Treasury secretary have been coddling the Wall Street elite, fretting that if they curtail executives’ pay and perks too much, if they make the negotiations with those who siphoned our 401(k)’s too tough, the spoiled Sherman McCoys will run away, the rescue plan will fail and the markets will wither. (Now that Mr. Obama has made $8,605,429 on his books — including $500,000 for letting his memoir be condensed into a kids’ book — maybe he’s lost touch with his hole-in-the-shoe, hole-in-the-Datsun, have-not roots.)

The shafters of the universe have been treated with such kid gloves that they remain obnoxiously oblivious. Vikram “Pandit the Bandit” at Citigroup, which received $50 billion in bailout money, is pulling a Thain, spending $10 million to renovate his Park Avenue offices, complete with a Sub-Zero refrigerator and premium millwork (whatever that is).

Fannie Mae, the mortgage finance behemoth that had $59 billion in losses last year when the government was forced to take it over, and since has asked for $15 billion in taxpayer money, brazenly intends to give $1 million apiece in retention bonuses to four top executives, even though the word retention in a depression is pure Ionesco. Freddie Mac, which has sought $45 billion in aid, has yet to disclose its planned bonuses.

Asked by Jay Leno why our loans to Wall Street haven’t trickled down to Main Street, President Obama conceded that the banks “haven’t started lending it yet.”

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who grew up as a Republican and was head of the New York Fed for five years, sees things from the point of view of that wellspring of masters of the universe, Goldman Sachs. (His Treasury chief of staff was a Goldman lobbyist, who fought then-Senator Obama’s attempt to curb executive compensation — just as Geithner has done within the administration.)

At the New York Fed, Geithner helped preside over the A.I.G. bailout in September. But in October, it was Andrew Cuomo, the New York attorney general, who had to threaten to sue unless A.I.G. canceled $160 million in planned expenses for conferences and a $600 million bonus pool.

Virtually unnoticed amid the bonus imbroglio was A.I.G.’s grudging disclosure that it had funneled $93 billion — more than half its federal money to date — to its high-flying insurees, including Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and a group of European banks.

Goldman Sachs separately got $10 billion in bailout money last year, but recently asserted snootily that it’s doing well enough and doesn’t want our money because of the restrictions attached. Yet as Goldman sneers at the federal money at the front door, it’s taking delivery of billions in no-strings federal money through the back door. Can we taxpayers deduct the difference?

Our gift to Goldman demonstrates why the government’s headless and heedless bailout of A.I.G. is so wrong.

And why are we bailing out foreign banks, including a couple of French ones and UBS, a Swiss bank currently tussling with the I.R.S. because it refuses to hand over the names of thousands of U.S. tax-dodgers?

The issue is how much we must pay to preserve financial stability over all, not how much one company promised to pay. At this point, A.I.G. seems to be the only party paying face value on toxic derivatives.

Ed Liddy was put in charge of an essentially bankrupt company, but he never drove a hard bargain on bonuses or counterparty debts. He honored contracts made by an organization that had become a fraudulent scheme. He could have told the leeches inside the company and out that the world had utterly changed, so the contracts would too — as Michelle would say, “whether they like it or not.”

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Obama's "Katrina Moment"?

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Has a "Katrina Moment" Arrived?

By Frank Rich

A CHARMING visit with Jay Leno won’t fix it. A 90 percent tax on bankers’ bonuses won’t fix it. Firing Timothy Geithner won’t fix it. Unless and until Barack Obama addresses the full depth of Americans’ anger with his full arsenal of policy smarts and political gifts, his presidency and, worse, our economy will be paralyzed. It would be foolish to dismiss as hyperbole the stark warning delivered by Paulette Altmaier of Cupertino, Calif., in a letter to the editor published by The Times last week: “President Obama may not realize it yet, but his Katrina moment has arrived.”

Six weeks ago I wrote in this space that the country’s surge of populist rage could devour the president’s best-laid plans, including the essential Act II of the bank rescue, if he didn’t get in front of it. The occasion then was the Tom Daschle firestorm. The White House seemed utterly blindsided by the public’s revulsion at the moneyed insiders’ culture illuminated by Daschle’s post-Senate career. Yet last week’s events suggest that the administration learned nothing from that brush with disaster.

Otherwise it never would have used Lawrence Summers, the chief economic adviser, as a messenger just as the A.I.G. rage was reaching a full boil last weekend. Summers is so tone-deaf that he makes Geithner seem like Bobby Kennedy.

Bob Schieffer of CBS asked Summers the simple question that has haunted the American public since the bailouts began last fall: “Do you know, Dr. Summers, what the banks have done with all of this money that has been funneled to them through these bailouts?” What followed was a monologue of evasion that, translated into English, amounted to: Not really, but you little folk needn’t worry about it.

Yet even as Summers spoke, A.I.G. was belatedly confirming what he would not. It has, in essence, been laundering its $170 billion in taxpayers’ money by paying off its reckless partners in gambling and greed, from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup on Wall Street to Société Générale and Deutsche Bank abroad.

Summers was even more highhanded in addressing the “retention bonuses” handed to the very employees who brokered all those bad bets. After reciting the requisite outrage talking point, he delivered a patronizing lecture to viewers of ABC’s “This Week” on how our “tradition of upholding law” made it impossible to abrogate the bonus agreements. It never occurred to Summers that Americans might know that contracts are renegotiated all the time — most conspicuously of late by the United Automobile Workers, which consented to givebacks as its contribution to the Detroit bailout plan. Nor did he note, for all his supposed reverence for the law, that the A.I.G. unit being rewarded with these bonuses is now under legal investigation by British and American authorities.

Within 24 hours, Summers’s stand was discarded by Obama, who tardily (and impotently) vowed to “pursue every single legal avenue” to block the bonuses. The question is not just why the White House was the last to learn about bonuses that Democratic congressmen had sought hearings about back in December, but why it was so slow to realize that the public’s anger couldn’t be sated by Summers’s legalese or by constant reiteration of the word outrage. By the time Obama acted, even the G.O.P. leader Mitch McConnell was ahead of him in full (if hypocritical) fulmination.

David Axelrod tried to rationalize the lagging response when he told The Washington Post last week that “people are not sitting around their kitchen tables thinking about A.I.G.,” but are instead “thinking about their own jobs.” While that’s technically true, it misses the point. Of course most Americans don’t know how A.I.G. brought the world’s financial system to near-ruin or what credit-default swaps are. They may not even know what A.I.G. stands for. But Americans do make the connection between their fears about their own jobs and their broad understanding of the A.I.G. debacle.

They know that the corporate bosses who may yet lay them off have sometimes been as obscenely overcompensated for failure as Wall Street’s bonus babies. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, chief executives at businesses as diverse as Texas Instruments and the home builder Hovnanian Enterprises have received millions in bonuses even as their companies’ shares have lost more than half their value.

Since Americans get the big picture of this inequitable system, that grotesque reality dwarfs any fine print. That’s why it doesn’t matter that the disputed bonuses at A.I.G. amount to less than one-tenth of one percent of its bailout. Or that CNBC — with 300,000 viewers on a typical day by Nielsen’s measure — is a relatively minor player in the crash. Or that Edward Liddy had nothing to do with A.I.G.’s collapse, or that John Thain, of the celebrated trash can, arrived after, not before, others wrecked Merrill Lynch.

These prominent players are just the handiest camera-ready triggers for the larger rage. Passions are now so hot that even Bernie Madoff’s crimes began to pale as we turned our attention to A.I.G.’s misdeeds, just as A.I.G. will fade when the next malefactor surfaces.

What made Jon Stewart’s takedown of Jim Cramer resonate was less his specific brief against CNBC’s cheerleading for bad stocks than his larger indictment of the gaping economic inequality that defined the bubble. As Stewart said, there were “two markets” — the long-term market that Americans earnestly thought would sustain their 401(k)’s, and the fast-moving, short-term “real market” in the back room where high-rolling insiders wagered “giant piles of money” and brought down everyone with them.

No one is more commanding on this subject than our president. In his town-hall meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., on Wednesday, he described the A.I.G. bonuses as merely a symptom of “a culture where people made enormous sums of money taking irresponsible risks that have now put the entire economy at risk.” But rhetoric won’t tamp down the anger out there, and neither will calculated displays of presidential “outrage.” We must have governance to match the message.

To get ahead of the anger, Obama must do what he has repeatedly promised but not always done: make everything about his economic policies transparent and hold every player accountable. His administration must start actually answering the questions that officials like Geithner and Summers routinely duck.

Inquiring Americans have the right to know why it took six months for us to learn (some of) what A.I.G. did with our money. We need to understand why some of that money was used to bail out foreign banks. And why Goldman, which declared that its potential losses with A.I.G. were “immaterial,” nonetheless got the largest-known A.I.G. handout of taxpayers’ cash ($12.9 billion) while also receiving a TARP bailout. We need to be told why retention bonuses went to some 50 bankers who not only were in the toxic A.I.G. unit but who left despite the “retention” jackpots. We must be told why taxpayers have so little control of the bailed-out financial institutions that we now own some or most of. And where are the M.R.I.’s from those “stress tests” the Treasury Department is giving those banks?

That’s just a short list. In general, it’s hard to imagine taxpayers shelling out billions for a second bank bailout unless there’s a full accounting of every dime of the first, and true transparency for the new plan whose rollout is becoming the most attenuated striptease since the heyday of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Another compelling question connects all of the above: why has there been so little transparency and so much evasiveness so far? The answer, I fear, is that too many of the administration’s officials are too marinated in the insiders’ culture to police it, reform it or own up to their own past complicity with it.

The “dirty little secret,” Obama told Leno on Thursday, is that “most of the stuff that got us into trouble was perfectly legal.” An even dirtier secret is that a prime mover in keeping that stuff legal was Summers, who helped torpedo the regulation of derivatives while in the Clinton administration. His mentor Robert Rubin, no less, wrote in his 2003 memoir that Summers underestimated how the risk of derivatives might multiply “under extraordinary circumstances.”

Given that Summers worked for a secretive hedge fund, D. E. Shaw, after he was pushed out of Harvard’s presidency at the bubble’s height, you have to wonder how he can now sell the administration’s plan for buying up toxic assets with the help of hedge funds. It will look like another giveaway to his own insiders’ club. As for Geithner, people might take him more seriously if he gave a credible account of why, while at the New York Fed, he and the Goldman alumnus Hank Paulson let Lehman Brothers fail but saved the Goldman-trading ally A.I.G.

As the nation’s anger rose last week, the president took responsibility for what’s happening on his watch — more than he needed to, given the disaster he inherited. But in the credit mess, action must match words. To fall short would be to deliver us into the catastrophic hands of a Republican opposition whose only known economic program is to reject job-creating stimulus spending and root for Obama and, by extension, the country to fail. With all due deference to Ponzi schemers from Madoff to A.I.G., this would be the biggest outrage of them all.

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Is Obama listening?

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Obama Told Us To Speak Out, But Is He Listening?

By William Grieder

The president is getting what he asked for, but perhaps not what he had in mind. During the campaign, Barack Obama beckoned Americans to put aside their cynicism about politics and re-engage as active citizens. They are now doing so with red-hot anger. They are outraged by events and forcing their way into congressional affairs and behind closed doors where policy wonks discuss issues with cerebral civility. The president is now trapped between these two realms -- the governing elites who decide things and the people who are governed. Which side is he on? If he does not choose wisely, the anger could devour his presidency.

The immediate impetus is the latest outrage from the financial sector. AIG, the failed insurance giant on government life support, proceeded to hand out $165 million in employee bonuses. Because Washington has pumped $170 billion into this zombie corporation, people quickly grasped that AIG was redistributing their tax money. On March 13, the White House sent out Larry Summers, the president's economic adviser, to explain things. Government has no choice, Summers said, because this is a government of laws and we must honor contracts. On Monday, the president scrapped that line, hoping to dodge the outrage.

Something fundamental has been altered in American politics. Encouraged by Obama's message of hope, agitated by darkening economic prospects, many people have thrown off sullen passivity and are trying to reclaim their role as citizens. This disturbs the routines of Washington but has great potential for restoring a functioning democracy. Timely intervention by the people could save the country from some truly bad ideas now circulating in Washington and on Wall Street. Ideas that could lead to the creation of a corporate state, legitimized by government and financed by everyone else. Once people understand the concept, expect a lot more outrage.

Public anger is likely to be a recurring episode, because the president has budgeted another $750 billion to rescue the financial system from its troubles. If Congress gives him the money, people will be watching where it goes. Obama is vulnerable to the blowback. In his address to Congress last month, he promised, "This is not about helping banks, it's about helping people." The first half of his statement is demonstrably not true, as people see for themselves and as bankers parade their arrogant excess. The second half is merely wishful.

Populism was the highly creative, self-made movement formed by desperate farmers in the late 19th century. It is disparaged in elite circles, but it generated vital ideas that ultimately reshaped government and democracy. We are not there yet, not even close. But the impulse for small-d democracy could be very healthy -- if the political system learns to listen and respond.

At the center of this story is Obama, who inherited the Democratic Party's awkward straddle between monied interests and working people. I voted for him joyfully and sympathize. His message to the nation last week reflected his dilemma. "I don't want to quell anger. People are right to be angry. I'm angry," he told reporters on Wednesday. Then he pivoted: "What I want us to do is channel our anger in a constructive way."

What's changed the president's situation? During the past nine months, gigantic financial bailouts amid collapsing economic life made visible the crippling divide between governing elites and citizens at large. People everywhere learned a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn't. They watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. "Where's my bailout," became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for "entitlement reform" -- a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.

Of course, popular alienation has been around a long time. But the stakes for the country are now far more grave. My new book -- "Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country" -- asserts that we're at the end of the long and mostly triumphant era that started with victory in World War II. We are going to change as a country, for better or worse, like it or not.

If people and the president do not stand up for just solutions, politics as usual will prevail. Congressional leaders are once again rushing to enact hasty "reforms" that might get the financial monkey off their back, but will permanently damage our democracy. Elite opinion wants to empower the Federal Reserve to act as the "super-cop" protecting the financial system against systemic risk in the future. This idea is another instance of rewarding failure. The Fed was blind to the systemic risk accumulating during the past two decades and it failed utterly to head off the excesses -- the explosion of debt and Wall Street's fraudulent valuations. The central bank, in fact, with its erratic monetary policy, was a central source of what destabilized the economy.

Why would politicians make this cloistered and unaccountable institution more powerful, when the Fed has been derelict in its historical obligation to protect the "safety and soundness" of the system? Reforms ought to head the opposite way -- forcing the Fed into daylight and the same regular order required of government agencies.

A few weeks ago, a freshman congressman, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), became an Internet celebrity with the video of him grilling the Federal Reserve vice chairman at a House hearing. The Fed is in the process of handing out almost $3 trillion. Can you tell us which firms and banks are getting money? Grayson asked. Donald Kohn said that would be inappropriate. It might discourage some banks from taking the public's money. More outrage ensued and last week, after a good pounding from citizens, the Fed folded and named some names.

A new regulatory regime that puts the secretive central bank in charge of everything would sanctify the policy of "too big to fail" that Fed officials have long followed but never honestly acknowledged. It would also revive the Wall Street club, albeit smaller than before, with which the Fed has been so cozy. If the largest bank holding companies are given privileged proximity to the source of government protection, then everyone in finance and commerce will want to become a bank holding company, too. We are already seeing this happening as former investment houses like Goldman Sachs and non-bank financial firms decide to join the system. Why not General Electric and Microsoft? Where does this end? What does it mean for smaller enterprises that lack the scale and influence?

Whatever the intentions, this "reform" would effectively legitimize the existence of a corporate state. This concentrated power would be neither socialism nor capitalism, but a grotesque hybrid that combines the worst qualities of both systems. Government and politics would become even more responsive to big money, but also able to tamper intimately with private enterprise, picking winners and losers based on political loyalties, not on performance. Capitalism with its inherent tendency toward monopoly would have the means to monopolize democracy.

Barack Obama can resist all this, if he chooses, but he seems conflicted. Obama's approach so far is devoted to restoring Wall Street's famous names, and his economic advisers tell him this is the "responsible" imperative, no matter that it might offend the unwashed public. Obama evidently agrees. He does not seem to grasp that the tone-deaf technocrats are leading him into a dead-end.

The president needs to hear a second opinion -- millions of them.

People are angry, but they want this president to succeed. Mobilized citizens can help him to prevail. If he goes with the other side, they will bring him down.

William Greider is national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He is author of "Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country" and, most recently, "Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country."

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US as a bigger Zimbabwe

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From now on, think of the US as a bigger Zimbabwe

"I've been condemned by traditional economists who say printing money drives inflation," observed Gideon Gono last month. "But once the IMF advised America to print money, I decided God was on my side and had come to vindicate me."

By Liam Halligan

For readers who may not know, Mr Gono is governor of the Central Bank of Zimbabwe. He'll be feeling particularly pious this weekend – as the mighty US has, indeed, just started printing money. We're supposed to call it "quantitative easing", I know. But if Mr Gono can tell it as it is, why can't we?

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve finally pressed the panic button – unveiling plans to buy $300bn (£210bn) of treasury bills. The US government will also purchase an extra $750bn of dodgy sub-prime securities from investors stupid enough to own them (on top of $500bn already pledged).

The Fed's move sparked a 50 basis point drop in US 10-year government yields, while the dollar lost 3pc – its biggest one-day fall in more than two decades. This is monetary "shock and awe". Before last September's collapse of Lehman Brothers, America's monetary base amounted to 6pc of GDP. Wednesday's plan will swell that figure to 30pc.

Such unprecedented policies are needed, we are told, to "fight deflation". As regular readers know, I think deflation is largely a myth – an alibi for wildly expansionary fiscal and monetary policy concocted by Western governments and their media lackeys.

After all, where is deflation? Data released last week put annual US core inflation at no less than 4pc. So why is the Fed doing this, following the Bank of England's lead? Because the real solution – forcing banks to face the music, while rescheduling massive private and public debts – is too politically frightening for our so-called leaders to contemplate.

A decision has been made, but not announced: we'll inflate away our debts instead – another policy Mr Gono knows well. That's why gold, the ultimate inflation hedge, surged in response to the Fed's announcement.

Amidst this policy maelstrom, Barack Obama resorted to the comfort of Jay Leno's sofa last week. For a US President to appear on the well-known comedian's TV chat-show, at a time like this, shows the White House is now desperate.

America's economy is on a knife-edge, policy-making is out of control, and most posts in the Obama treasury team remain unfilled. Perhaps the President could sign up Mr Gono and Mr Leno? Could they really do any worse?

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Describing Barack Obama

I haven't posted in some time simply because of the press of business. But I came across this from an ABC News site and had to post it for all to see. Written by a forum poster, it is the most concise series of statements yet describing Obama:

- A “reverend and mentor” who GD’s America...
- A wife who has never been “proud” of America...
- A man who has never held a job – but the most important one in the world...
- A man who runs on transparency – then seals his college records...
- A man who claims citizenship – then hires a team of lawyers - to “not” allow scrutiny...
- A man who campaigns on the runaway spending and a deficit of eight years – then doubles it in less than 50 days...
- A man who bans lobbyist – then attempts to hire one...
- A man who condemns cheats and dishonesty – then accepts the same to run the treasury...
- A man who signs a law – but does not read it or know what it contains....
- A man who preaches “equality for all” – then targets and punishes 5% unequally...
- A man who pledges to reduce the tax for 95% - then raises them for 100%...
- A man who fails to accept responsibility for a congress who wrote the laws - and spending bills - the past two years – and continues to attack a president who didn’t...
- A man who is willing to provided for those who attacked this country – while degrading those trying to defend it...
- A man who follows the belief that upholding the immigration laws of America – is unpatriotic and un-American...
- A man who pledges allegiance to the constitution and laws of the land – then null and voids a perfectly legal contract protected by the constitution...
- A man who speaks of responsible behavior – then projects the opposite...
- A man who voices “free choice” – then systematically silences the voiceless...