Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Tuesday Morning Ponderings

  • Understandably, many on the left have questioned why GM’s Rich Wagoner was tossed underneath the bus while financial sector executives are permitted to carry on. Yet I wonder if the Obama administration has instead achieved the equivalent of Godfather like leverage with recipients of TARP money: they know he’s making them an offer that can’t be refused. I hope so because up until now the financial sector has been like bank robbers threatening to drop more bags of nitroglycerin on the economy.
  • I remain convinced that among the reforms needed is comprehensive anti-trust legislation to break up mega-sized financial institutions and empower local community banks. Is it too much to hope that congressional conservatives and liberals opposed to the TARP money will eventually collaborate on such reforms? There is a crying need for it and the country would likely support it.
  • Today’s G-20 summit (which is really about thirty nations) is perhaps the most important international gathering since FDR, Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta in February 1945. Six decades ago the post-war world was being shaped with America as the preeminent power in an emerging cold war competition. Today’s geopolitics is multi-polar and President Obama must navigate in an arena in which America’s leverage and credibility are severely diminished. Nonetheless, the global economy as well as challenges such as global warming and terrorism can’t be effectively addressed without American cooperation. My hunch is that President Obama will excel in this arena requiring high caliber statesmanship.
  • Is today’s special election in New York State’s congressional 20th district a bellwether? Typically, voters in the New York 20th are Republicans. Nonetheless, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand prevailed in 2006 and her appointment as Hillary Clinton’s replacement has resulted in today’s spirited contest between Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican State Assembly leader Jim Tedisco. The Obama administration has enlarged the importance of the race by putting its political muscle behind Murphy. If Murphy loses Republicans will claim the country is turning against the administration’s ambitious agenda. If Murphy prevails, Democrats will hopefully be emboldened to push ahead on progressive initiatives such as health care. Turn out in special elections are always mysterious so this race is hard to predict.
  • New York State Governor David Paterson and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith are so hapless, that Sheldon Silver has emerged as Albany’s dominant power center. Silver, the longtime Assembly leader and adversary of transparent open government has easily rolled both Paterson and the novice Smith in budget negotiations. Appropriately, today’s New York Times has an article entitled, “Albany’s Big 3 Is Cut to One.” As I and many reform minded New Yorkers feared, the window of opportunity to reform Albany’s government ended with Spitzer’s resignation last year. What a shame.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Max Baucus Is A Corporatist Class Warrior

A personal friend and avid reader of this blog recently complained that,
“You’re too tough on Democrats and Barack Obama. Since the election you’ve fired more rhetorical bullets at Democrats than Republicans.”
This was in response to my recent critiques of the Obama administration's handling of the banking crisis as well as my March 8th post, entitled “Evan Bayh Is A Corporatist Class Warrior.” To my friend and others like him I say this: just because I worked hard to elect Democrats as well as our current president doesn’t make me an unquestioning Borg drone.

Our conservative counterparts cheered while George W. Bush and his party brought America to its knees with their insipid indecency. Now it’s the Democrats in power and they must also be held accountable. The purpose of my activism as well as the participation of the “netroots” contained three objectives:

1) End predatory conservatism’s reign of indecency.

2) Enable the Democrats to obtain power in exchange for influence.

3) Leverage our influence within the party to pursue policies that facilitate broad prosperity, peace and social justice.

Put simply it’s a business relationship. Democrats are using people like me and we’re using the party. That said, I fully acknowledge the mess President Obama and Democrats have inherited and appreciate how four decades of predatory conservatism can’t be undone in two months.

I’m patient as long we’re going in the right direction and a strong critique from the left is necessary to keep the party and administration honest. I prefer to think of it as “constructive engagement.” Recently, in a podcast interview with me longtime journalist and author, William Greider referred to it as a “righteous struggle.” Overall, I believe the creative tension has gone reasonably well on some issues and less so on others. Now that Democrats control two of the three branches of government, vigilance is even more imperative.

Entrenched moneyed interests realize the onetime Republican gravy train is irrelevant and instead hope to persuade “Blue Dog” Democrats like Evan Bayh with dollars and even lucrative jobs for their families. Another Democrat beholden to corporate interests is Montana Senator Max Baucus, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Regrettably, Baucus has been an aggressive apostle of Washington’s rewarding wealth over work culture since his election in 1978. Sadly, as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus has jurisdiction over any health care legislation that congress passes.

Yesterday, Howard Dean said that unless Americans have the choice of enrolling in a new public health care plan, the system won't be made more efficient. Most Americans would prefer to have a public option for health care. Yet Senator Baucus had the following reaction:

“Let’s see what we come up with. I think we can accomplish the objective [Dean] wants without [a public plan]. We can, we’re going to have to work on it. But we may have to have it, [Dean] may be right. Just don’t know yet.”
Translation, Baucus is willing to offer rhetorical platitudes suggesting he supports expanding health care but is really working to preserve the domain of the medical industrial complex at the expense of regular folks. According to OpenSecrets.org, these are the top five industries contributing to Baucus campaigns between 2003-2008:
  • Securities & Investment $832,918
  • Lawyers/Law Firms $668,004
  • Insurance $590,185
  • Health Professionals $537,141
  • Pharmaceuticals/Health Products $524,813
There you have it. Baucus is beholden to Wall Street financiers at the expense of wage earners and small business entrepreneurs and the lapdog of a health care industry that prioritizes profit over wellness.

His voting record certainly reflects the donations he’s received. For example, Baucus was one of eighteen Democrats to support the 2005 predatory bankruptcy legislation passed by congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush. Baucus also supported the Bush administration's catastrophic tax cuts in 2001 that helped give us the deficits so called moderate Democrats like him claim to worry about today.

Indeed, it seems moderate Democrats like Baucus always promote fiscal responsibility until it gets in the way of redistributing wealth from wage earners living paycheck to paycheck to the super rich. How the hell has this dude managed to maintain a populist image in Montana?

Some may be tempted to rationalize that Baucus is the price for having a Democratic Senator from Montana. Recent evidence however suggests that is ridiculous. In 2006, Jon Tester defeated entrenched conservative Republican incumbent Conrad Burns with a populist campaign for the senate. And Brian Schweitzer has emerged as an effective, popular and progressive governor. Indeed, as a New Yorker I wish we had Schweitzer as our governor instead of the hapless David Paterson.

Democrats such as Max Baucus are the reason I've donated to Accountability Now. Accountability Now was founded by bloggers Glenn Greenwald and Jane Hamsher to provide a needed counterweight to pressure Democrats like Max Baucus. What I wrote about Indiana Senator Evan Bayh on March 8th is doubly true for Max Baucus:
“Nothing concentrates a politician’s mind like the prospect of a primary challenge. Accountability Now is a vehicle to obtain leverage and pressure Democrats such as Evan Bayh that opposing progressive change will put their careers in jeopardy. Delivering power to the Democratic Party in 2006 and 2008 was merely Phase One. Phase Two is transforming the Democratic Party as the people’s party rather than simply existing as the lesser corporatist evil in a two party duopoly.”
When Max Baucus guides his finance committee with respect to the health care debate and President Obama’s budget, it is imperative he hear from us. Baucus must be convinced that failure to act on behalf of the people’s interests will result in his political extinction. That is the only language entrenched power respects.

Even if you’re not a Montana resident, Baucus obviously accepts many contributions outside his state and as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has disproportionate influence over the economic security of all Americans. It therefore seems reasonable that Americans across the country make it known to Baucus that we’ll be monitoring his actions closely and help end his career just as we helped elect Jon Tester in 2006. I did a lot of phone banking on Tester's behalf in 2006 and would be more than happy to volunteer on behalf of a liberal primary opponent to Max Baucus.

In the meantime, Baucus needs to feel the earth tremble beneath his feet. Click here for the telephone numbers of Baucus’s seven offices and here to email him.

Even with President Barack Obama in the White House, obtaining change we can believe in remains up to us. That means using our leverage to either place more liberal minded senators on that body's powerful finance committee or persuading status quo champions such as Max Baucus not to stand in our way.

Saturday Morning Ponderings

This entire week I have endured the mother of all colds. Yet even in my Sudafed haze, I must comment on this week’s important developments:
  • This week Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner finally rolled out his public/private partnership plan with respect to “toxic assets.” His so-called plan has me thinking about the dangers of treating symptoms instead of the cause. A fever is the body’s way of sending us a message that we need to kill off an infection. Similarly, these “toxic assets” are sending the international community an unmistakable message; hyper-sized financial institutions are a parasitic infection eroding quality of life for wage earners across the globe.
  • Removing toxic assets is not treating the cause. And while more regulation is entirely justified and something we liberals have been insisting upon, that too will not treat the cause. Instead, citizens need to mobilize on behalf of bold anti-trust legislation that breaks up financial institutions such as CitiCorp and empower independent community banks. Do not be seduced by the gyrations of the stock market that some liberal bloggers chirped about this week. Unless the cause itself is treated our economic destiny will remain perilous. I fully support President Obama's ambitious budget and have nothing but contempt for the insipid Republican opposition as well as corporatist enablers such Indiana Senator Evan Bayh who stand in the way. Yet even the good intentions and overdue initiatives proposed in Obama's budget will not benefit our country as it should unless we boldly reshape our entire financial system.
  • President Barack Obama took complete ownership of the war in Afghanistan yesterday with his announcement of 17,000 more combat troops as well as an additional 4,000 non-combat advisers. One difference between Obama and his predecessor is the linkage between the fight against al Quaeda in neighboring Pakistan as well as their Taliban allies in Afghanistan. Another difference is how the Obama administration intends to combine military power with a surge in regional diplomacy and “experts” to help fight corruption and facilitate a civil society. Supposedly, the focus is entirely defeating al Quaeda and not nation building, but how the hell can we fight corruption in an ancient society we know precious little about?
  • Meanwhile, the administration promises to both lean on and support the Pakistani government in their struggle against terrorists. Frankly, aid to the Pakistani government at this point appears every bit as wasteful as giving billions to A.I.G. The civilian government uses terrorism as an excuse to oppress its population as elements of Pakistan’s intelligence service and military aid the Taliban in Afghanistan. How do we know that any aid we provide Pakistan isn’t being utilized to plan another attack against us or help the wrong people obtain access to their nuclear arsenal?
  • All this is further compounded by an ultra-nationalist government in India that would make American neo-cons blush with their belligerence. The sub-continent is the world’s most dangerous powder keg and America’s presence has intensified regional violence. Even so, I sympathize with President Obama’s conundrum. Twenty years ago, our careless withdrawal after the cold war’s end facilitated the blowback that resulted in 9/11 and gave al Quaeda its safe haven. Our careless withdrawal of course followed our ill conceived intervention on behalf of Aghanistan's Mullah's in the first place when we armed Bin Laden in his struggle against the Soviet Union. If we screw it up this time the consequences will be far more catastrophic.
  • I’ve long believed that the best strategic approach is cooperative containment with the international community as opposed to grandiose delusions about “dismantling” and “disabling” al Quaeda. This is an organic movement. You can take out one important leader after the other including Bin Laden himself and it will simply regenerate. We need instead to address the causes of terrorism and work diligently at draining the swamp that fosters it. Anything less is a waste of blood and treasure. Not to mention all the innocent people being killed in Afghanistan by our presence. Also, we should be on the side of democracy in Pakistan instead of nurturing more resentment among Pakistan's decent civillian majority.
  • Longtime readers of this blog know how vigorously opposed I am to our prison industrial complex. I have therefore been keeping an eye on Virginia Senator James Webb who since his election in 2006, has spoken coherently about the need to reform our prison system. With a sympathetic President finally in the White House, Senator Webb has opted to take the initiative and joined Republican Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter in that effort. Both senators proposed legislation to create a blue-ribbon panel that would conduct an 18-month review and suggest recommendations of reform.
  • Specifically, Webb hopes to reform a system that incarcerates 2.4 million people and represents 25 percent of the world’s prison population even as America comprises only 5 percent of the entire planet. Mostly we have incarcerated people for petty drug offenses who need treatment instead of prison. This is an act of real political courage because any suggestion of reform usually results in accusations of being soft on crime.
  • Coincidentally, while Senators Webb and Specter plot prison reform in America, New York State’s dysfunctional leadership is finally addressing the arcane “Rockefeller Drug Laws” that have empowered my home state’s prison industrial complex for three decades. My favorite legislator, New York State Senator Liz Krueger, announced in a press release this week that,
“I am very proud to be a part of history today and finally see the Rockefeller Drug Laws reformed. The reforms announced today will restore judicial sentencing discretion and substantially expand alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders.

It has been a long hard fight to reform these archaic drug laws and today is the culmination of decades of hard work and advocacy from countless people, all of whom deserve praise for helping to achieve these needed reforms."
  • Reforming our prisons and drug laws will do more to curb violence in Mexico than any increase in numbers of our border patrol. Legalization and treatment will address the causes of drug abuse far more effectively than mindlessly incarcerating people and creating blowback in neighboring Mexico.
The one theme that emerges from the above bullet points is America's need to think about the cause instead of always reacting to the symptoms of what ails us.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

MTA At DefCon One

The body politic and blogosphere is focused on President Obama's 2nd prime time press conference, Tim Geithner's "plan" to resolve the banking crisis and the ongoing budget debate in Washington. Presently, my immediate concern with respect to the economy is local. This morning, the MTA board is planning to vote and ratify a budget with burdensome hikes and draconian service cuts for commuters to address a $1.2 billion deficit. That figure represents only what is known as it may well be even higher.

Former MTA Chairman, Richard Ravitch had earned broad based support with a plan to address the crisis fairly and spread the pain. Our "leadership" in Albany however has opted to punt. Senate Majority leader Malcolm Smith was especially feckless. Sadly, after initially supporting the Ravitch plan, Governor Paterson has opted to punt as well.

New York State's economy relies heavily on the infrastructure of New York City's transit system. If our leaders in Albany truly believe it makes sense to focus on the state's overall budget while abandoning New York City, they're in for a rude awakening.

Under the MTA's proposal, base fares would jump to $2.50, and monthly MetroCards would rise to $103. So that extra $20 the Obama administration has allocated in our payroll taxes is effectively consumed. Even worse, subway lines and bus routes will be eliminated in all five boroughs. Eight bus lines and one subway line will be eliminated in Queens alone.

New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has garnered substantial headlines for his efforts to recover A.I.G.'s bonus money. If he somehow identified a pretext to use his authority to resolve the MTA budget crisis, I would eagerly sign up to help elect him governor.

During the subway strike in December 2005, my Brooklyn-Manhattan commute was on foot. Now that the weather is warming up, I'm tempted do that again!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Come Home America: An Interview With Truth Teller William Greider

I first became aware of William Greider after the publication of his 1981, Atlantic Monthly profile of President Reagan’s embattled Office of Management and Budget Director (“OMB”), David Stockman. At the time I was just a kid and the Reagan administration insisted they could simultaneously balance the budget, cut taxes and increase defense spending exponentially.

Greider’s reporting however exposed that even Stockman, doubted the fiscal prudence of Reaganomics. After the article’s publication, Stockman absorbed public humiliation when President Reagan took him “to the woodshed.” I trace that article as a seminal moment in my own political awareness.

Over the years, Greider has been a determined voice of truth against a backdrop of America’s pro-war, pro-Wall Street governing elites and their enablers inside the corporate media. While Alan Greenspan was celebrated, Greider warned that the Federal Reserve and other regulatory agencies were guilty of dereliction. When celebrated economists such as Paul Krugman extolled the virtues of free trade and globalization, Greider warned of diminished wages at home and condemned the shameful exploitation our consumption habits subsidized abroad.

Greider’s latest book, Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country, just published by Rodale, is a manifesto of hope and warning. In Chapter One, Greider writes:
“Think of America at this point as a muscular teenager, full of talent, adolescent energy, and youth’s over-reaching impulses. This is a critical stage in human development and for our nation it could go either way. Some nations that acted like willful children when they were young formed balanced societies when they became adults. Other nations have never really grown up.

The question, I think is whether-we-the people who proudly call ourselves Americans – can mature as a society. The country can develop a deeper sense of what matters most in life and what doesn’t. It can shed some self-destructive reflexes and acquire a wiser sense of national self-interest that is anchored in the nation’s ideals. Wisdom tempers egotism. This is true for both people and nations.

Or, the United States can plunge ahead self-indulgently, repeating destructive habits, acting out reckless ambitions, and getting into deeper trouble. We all know children who, for whatever reason, got older but never found themselves. This is possible for nations too, especially ones that refuse to reconcile themselves to new realities.

I am betting we will grow into our maturity and hoping that lots of Americans agree.”
Greider’s book chronicles why America is in dire straits and proposes numerous solutions to facilitate a better economic foundation for the struggling middle class. His recommendations include consolidating many of the Federal Reserve’s functions within the executive branch to ensure public accountability for monetary policy, replacing private pension plans such as 401ks with government pension plans instead and capping U.S. trade deficits through a general emergency tariff authorized under the charter of the World Trade Organization.

Even more than any singular remedy however, Greider’s book urges outraged citizens to embrace activism as a means of forcing the powerful in the public and private sectors to finally put our national interests above corporate greed. Ultimately, Greider's book argues that the current crisis is an opportunity for citizens to reengage and facilitate a more just and equitable society.

Greider is the best-selling author of five previous books, including One World, Ready or Not; Who Will Tell the People; and Secrets of the Temple. He’s written for the Washington Post and Rolling Stone as well as serving as an on-air correspondent for six PBS Frontline documentaries. Currently, Greider is the national affairs correspondent for The Nation.

Greider agreed to a podcast telephone interview with me this afternoon about his book and views. Our conversation was just over forty-eight minutes and among the topics we discussed were the current A.I.G. bonus controversy, the Democratic Party’s culpability in overriding state and local laws against usury, his recommendations to overhaul the Federal Reserve and pension system, America's destructive relationship with China, our excessive militarism and the fine line being walked by activists who support the Democratic Party and President Obama while, simultaneously pushing for real change.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes Store at no cost by searching for either the "Intrepid Liberal Journal" or "Robert Ellman."

Friday, March 20, 2009

Malcom Smith's MTA Folly

While the country obsesses over AIG bonuses and false populists in Washington feign outrage, a moment of truth for New Yorkers is soon upon us. After years of rampant cronyism and grotesque mismanagement, the Mass Transit Authority (“MTA”) is poised to stick it to struggling New Yorkers with an obscene fare hike to make up for their $1.2 billion budget deficit. Even before the current economic crisis, the MTA chronically illustrated state government at its worst. Now with New York City residents either out of work or living paycheck to paycheck, subway fares are poised to increase to $2.50 per ride combined with massive service cuts.

Governor David Paterson’s stewardship has largely been feckless but at least he’s tried to lead credibly on this issue. The same can be said of Assembly leader Sheldon Silver whom I typically despise. A commission chaired by former MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch recently proposed a reasonable payroll tax and tolls with respect to the East River and Harlem River bridges to spread the pain fairly. Two of the “three men in a room,” Paterson and Silver, signed onto Ravitch’s plan as did the most zealous subway riders advocacy group, the Straphangers Campaign.

The third member of the Albany governing triumvirate however, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, has not contributed to facilitating a credible resolution to the crisis. Instead he initially proposed a plan that was rightly lambasted by the New York Daily News earlier this week. Today, the New York Daily News is reporting that Smith is poised to delay a comprehensive bailout for the MTA and focus on the state budget. Smith self-righteously proclaims,
"If we can get everything done, I am sure we will, but there's 19 million people that are concerned about that budget,"
Hence, the MTA is only days away from imposing their draconian “doomsday” budget and New York City residents will reap the economic whirlwind. I don’t dispute the importance of the state’s overall budget. But that doesn’t excuse Smith’s grotesque failure of leadership. Especially when you have a proposed solution by the Ravitch Commission that spreads the pain judiciously.

Although I applaud Senator Smith's recent efforts to to make the legislative process in Albany more transparent, his callous disregard for New York City residents is unacceptable. Click here to contact Senator Smith’s office and urge him to adopt the Ravitch proposal immediately.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Clarence Darrow & Yogi Berra

Arguably America’s greatest trial lawyer, Clarence Darrow, famously once said,
"First and last, it's a question of money. Those men who own the earth make the laws to protect what they have. They fix up a sort of fence or pen around what they have, and they fix the law so the fellow on the outside cannot get in. The laws are really organized for the protection of the men who rule the world. They were never organized or enforced to do justice. We have no system for doing justice, not the slightest in the world."

Reading this morning’s headlines about A.I.G. utilizing $165 million of their $170 billion tax payer financed bailout for bonuses, reminded me of Darrow’s insight. The excuse being offered after all is that a “contract is a contract” and A.I.G. must fulfill their obligations.

Isn’t it curious how contracts are deemed sacrosanct for Wall Street beneficiaries but not blue-collar members of unions in the auto industry? Unions are expected to get “realistic” and “ renegotiate” their contracts but moneyed elites are allowed to carry on as before. Anyone who has the temerity to point out the contradiction is “unreasonable,” “angry,” “extreme,” or heaven forbid, one of those “crazy left wing bloggers.”

For what it’s worth, I personally believe all demographics must ultimately sacrifice for the greater good during this calamity. Unlike its imperial antecedents, the American empire has largely serviced the purpose of consumer excess – especially for the top. With America’s empire in decline, all hands must now be on deck to reverse our society’s cascade of ruin as we develop a new socio-economic paradigm, absent the perks and burdens of a hyper-power.

That means a tough transition for all of us as we cease to consume a quarter of the world’s resources, work to extricate ourselves from Beijing bankers and end our addiction to military conflict as a means of resolving disputes. Nonetheless, how can any president ask Americans to accept their health benefits being taxed, when A.I.G. is permitted to distribute unseemly bonuses after their conduct precipitated the current crisis? Bottom line, the worst insurance company in history is utilizing our tax dollars to reward their employees with bonuses, while the rest of us are treading water and being asked to shed even more skin.

I suspect most people understand we have to change in order to bring about change. That was my sense during the campaign as I canvassed and phonebanked. Indeed, as the Jon Stewart showdown with CNBC’s Jim Cramer illustrated, Americans are finally ready for hard truths after lies about WMD’s in Iraq while warning signs with respect to the current economic crisis were ignored. People are just desperate enough now to respond to hard truth if it’s backed up with a coherent strategy and the pain is absorbed fairly.

Alas, asking people who are currently teetering on the abyss to sacrifice has no credibility given the circumstances and messengers. How could it when tax-cheat Timothy Geithner and his plutocratic deregulating mentor from the Clinton Administration, Larry Summers, continue to subsidize thieves? The good people of A.I.G. are like the proverbial bank robbers holding bags of nitroglycerin. Give us your money they say or we’ll drop our nitroglycerin bags on what’s left of the global economy. So we continue to appease them.

Now in fairness to President Obama, he inherited what can only be described as a cluster fuck. And he hasn’t even been in office two months. Furthermore, much of the so-called political opposition as well as the establishment that critiques him, are simultaneously insipid and disingenuous. As I wrote a few days ago,
“Already you’re hearing voices question whether President Obama’s is pushing too much at once on the ‘system.’ These voices sound reasonable when they claim we should ‘fix the economy first’ and worry about health-care, energy and education later. They're enablers of capitalism’s dark underbelly, hoping to run out the clock on President Obama’s popularity and continue business as usual.”
Hence, I largely support the goals of President Obama’s proposed budget and have contempt for this “establishment” that failed to address the very challenges he dares to take on. Clarence Darrow would certainly recognize those that oppose Obama’s agenda as elites making laws to “protect what they have” at the expense of everyone else.

Yet each day that passes without the Obama administration implementing a credible, transparent and coherent strategy to address America’s banking and housing crisis, only serves to further tighten the Gordian knot of economic calamity. This week we're supposed to hear more from Secretary Geithner about his plans to resolve these challenges with a “public-private” partnership. I don’t have much faith in Geithner, an upwardly mobile tax-cheating plutocrat who previously served at the New York Federal Reserve Bank and engineered the TARP legislation that passed last fall.

So even though it hasn’t even been two months since Obama’s inaugural, a famous Yogi Berra quote also comes to mind:
“It gets late early around here.”

Update: The San Francisco Chronicle reports that A.I.G.'s bonus payout totals $450 million.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Thank You Chapeau!

Earlier this week, Chapeau Blog Awards nominated this blog as one of two finalists for their news category. I am both honored and appreciative of the recognition. As a blogger, it's also gratifying to know that an effort is being made to recognize and promote the art of blogging itself.

Other categories that Chapeau is acknowledging as they select their "most brilliant blog" for 2009 include Arts & Design, Entertaining, Health & Beauty, Hobbies, Marketing & Advertising, Parenting, Real Estate & Development, Technology and Travel & Leisure. Naturally, the eligible voters are bloggers. To become a voter, please click here. Voting begins on April 14th and ends on April 30th.

Needless to say, I will do a reminder post just before voting begins!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jim Cramer Belongs In Jail

How many of you watched Jon Stewart's showdown with CNBC financial guru Jim Cramer? This video clip is exhibit A of why the Wall Street economy has ruined our country. The foundation of a healthy economy and democracy is truth and transparency. Instead, we have a sickly empire financed with phony money and the edifice is crumbling. It cannot be repaired. To suggest otherwise is delusional and criminally insane.

Alas, constructing a new socio-economic paradigmn is not like making instant coffee. The task ahead requires urgency, patience and trial and error. One absolute however is accountability for criminal behavior. Hence, we should all email the SEC (enforcement@sec.gov) and and demand an investigation of Jim Cramer. People like him have helped disintegrate the life savings of millions of people.

Change starts with justice.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Can Anyone Spare A Dime For the FDIC?

The Boston Globe reports the following:
"The federal agency that insures bank deposits, which is asking for emergency powers to borrow up to $500 billion to take over failed banks, is facing a potential major shortfall in part because it collected no insurance premiums from most banks from 1996 to 2006.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures deposits up to $250,000, tried for years to get congressional authority to collect the premiums in case of a looming crisis. But Congress believed that the fund was so well-capitalized - and that bank failures were so infrequent - that there was no need to collect the premiums for a decade, according to banking officials and analysts.

Now with 25 banks having failed last year, 17 so far this year, and many more expected in the coming months, the FDIC has proposed large new premiums for banks at the very time when many can least afford to pay. The agency collected $3 billion in the fees last year and has proposed collecting up to $27 billion this year, prompting an outcry from some banks that say it will force them to raise consumer fees and curtail lending."
I hope to hell Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is asked about this during his Senate testimony today. Not that I have any confidence in anything he would have to say about it. The insipid indecency of predatory conservatism has destroyed America's financial system and taken the global economy down with it. Currently, President Obama and congressional Democrats are overly timid in addressing the cascade of ruin upon us.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Local Banks! Local Banks! Local Banks!

Readers of this blog may be tired of my repeating myself, but I'll repeat this anyway: our body politic is too consumed with the fate of mega-sized global banks. Instead we should be empowering local community sized banks that have a superior track record compared to CitiGroup or Bank of America. Hence, I was gratified when Missouri Democratic Senator, Claire McCaskill, made the following observation on ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos yesterday:
"And as a matter of confidence, I think it's important for us to point out that there's two kinds of banks that we're talking about here. The -- the commercial banks, the small, local banks, they're fine, and people need to realize that. Your local bank is loaning money; it is operating as it always had.

It may be suffering in its stock prices because of what's going on in the stock market, but they are doing a great job. In fact, most of the commercial banks, the local banks, have loaned more money in the fourth quarter of last year than they had the fourth quarter the previous year."
Exactly. It’s most curious to me that other Democrats haven’t figured this out. Indeed, Democrats are far more supportive of bailing out these institutional monsters than Republicans!

I realize CitiGroup may be “too big to fail” and one can argue we can’t allow that to happen. CitiGroup and the global economy are inextricably entwined, as is AIG. I understand that. And if these bailouts were part of a comprehensive strategy to buy time as we transitioned towards a more sensible financial system, I would embrace it.

To this point however, neither President Obama nor his beleaguered tax cheating Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, have articulated a plan beyond “stabilizing” these financial monstrosities and regulating them better. That is not a viable strategy. Rather it resembles a Hail Mary attempt to toss money into a hole, hope it finds a floor and promise that regulation will ensure it’s not stolen.

A better strategy might well be to discontinue appropriating billions for failures such as CitiGroup in favor of establishing a protocol that rewards healthy local banks with money instead. Set aside the billions used to bail out the mega-sized global banks and establish a grant funding process that rewards independent community banks. As Senator McCaskill sagaciously pointed out, local banks have been responsible and are proactively lending.

At least that way, both the public as well as the global market place can then have confidence that thousands of banks across the nation are meeting viability threshold standards without any “moral hazards.” Furthermore, the independent community banks are far more likely to deliver any infusion of capital onto the street.

Many would call that concept radical and perhaps it is. But the circumstances we find ourselves in are extreme. Keeping CitiGroup, the world’s worst insurance company, AIG, and Bank of America afloat is not mitigating the pain. If we must experience this pain we should at least implement a strategy that builds a healthier financial system.

President Obama is a thoughtful judicious leader that I proudly worked to help elect. I am gratified by much of what he has done already. I strongly support Obama’s efforts at reforming health-care, developing an environment friendly energy policy and investing more in public education simultaneously, rather than give in to garden variety inside the beltway myopia.

But all Obama's good intentions and plans will never come to fruition unless his administration develops a strategy that facilitates a community friendly banking system. Otherwise, the American economy will be condemned to decades of sputtering like an armless swimmer as the global economy slides off the abyss.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Evan Bayh Is A Corporatist Class Warrior

Among my least favorite Democrats is Indiana Senator, Evan Bayh. Bayh wasted no time after President Obama’s election to announce his formation of a Blue Dog caucus in the Senate.

With Republicans out of power, elites are more likely to favor Bayh and his Blue Dog friends as enablers in their ongoing crusade against wage earners, small business entrepreneurs and the poor. While liberals are expending energy on Rush Limbaugh and the insipid Republican minority, corporatist predators have shifted their focus to greasing corporate appeasers such as Evan Bayh.

Accordingly, Bayh is causing mischief with respect to the Omnibus Appropriations Act. For the record, Wisconsin Senator, Russ Feingold, a politician I have long admired has also opposed legislation to keep the government running in protest to the omnibus process itself. I am of course disappointed in Feingold for playing games during an economic calamity as well as increasingly disenchanted with Senator Harry Reid’s hapless performance as Majority Leader.

Unlike Feingold however, Bayh is continuing a pattern of using appealing moderate language such as “fiscal discipline” to support a corporatist agenda. Ironically, his father, Birch Bayh was a proud and unapologetic liberal who defended the middle class when he served in the Senate. Alas, the apple has fallen far from the tree with the son.

Bayh was among eighteen Senate Democrats to betray working people and join Republicans in support of the Bankruptcy Abuse and Prevention Act in 2005. For the record, so did Vice President Joe Biden, while he served in the Senate. At least Biden though had the excuse of representing a state with workers disproportionately employed by the banks and credit card companies. Bayh had no such excuse in supporting arguably the worst piece of domestic legislation in a generation.

A review of the online Federal Election Commission database with respect to Bayh’s contributions is especially instructive. Below is a bullet summary listing some of the donations Bayh has received over the years:
  • Between 1997 and 2006, Bayh received eight contributions from the American Bankers Associations Political Action Committee (BANKPAC), totaling $20,000. No wonder Bayh supported bankruptcy legislation in 2005. It’s also noteworthy that Bayh received a $2,300 contribution from the Bank of America Corporation Federal PAC on January 8, 2008.
  • Between 1998 and 2004, Bayh received 12 contributions from the General Dynamics Voluntary Political Contribution Plan (GDVPCP) totaling $17,000. General Dynamics is a notorious war profiteer and Bayh voted in favor of our disastrous war in Iraq.
  • Between 1997 and 2005, Bayh received 16 contributions from the General Electric Political Action Committee (GEPAC) totaling $17,000. GE is not only a war profiteer but also the parent company of NBC.
  • Between 1999 and 2005, Bayh received five contributions from the Citigroup Inc. Political Action Committee-Federal (Citigroup PAC-Federal) totaling $12,000.
  • Between 2000 and 2006, Bayh received six contributions from the Capital One Financial Corp. Assoc. Political Fund, totaling $11,000. What’s in your wallet Senator Bayh?
  • Between 1997 and 2005, Bayh received eleven contributions from the AFLAC Incorporated Political Action Committee (AFLACPAC), totaling $11,000. I’ve always admired the AFLAC “duck” from their commercials. AFLAC also provides helpful supplementary coverage to your garden variety HMO plan. Nonetheless, real comprehensive healthcare reform would render AFLAC irrelevant. So once the battle for healthcare reform is joined, you can be sure their duck will not be quacking on your side.
  • Between 2001 and 2003, Bayh received five contributions from the Aetna Inc. Political Action Committee totaling $8,000. Aetna is an insidious component of the medical industry complex favoring profit over wellness and gouging Americans at every opportunity.
  • Between 1997 and 2005, Bayh received six contributions from the Action Fund of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. totaling $5,500. No more need to be said about that.
I’m not looking to merely attack Senator Bayh. To be sure, the online FEC database also references generous contributions to him that I find less objectionable such as the AFL-CIO. Also, my home state Senator Charles Schumer is no prize either. That said, Senator Bayh illustrates why liberals must remain engaged and nurture strong counterweights to corporate influences responsible for America’s current cascade of ruin.

One such counterweight is Accountability Now founded by Jane Hamsher and Glenn Greenwald. Accountability Now is the netroots answer to special interest lobbyists that buy politicians like Bayh to support their pro-war/pro-corporatist agenda.

Already you’re hearing voices question whether President Obama’s is pushing too much at once on the “system.” These voices sound reasonable when they claim we should “fix the economy first” and worry about health-care, energy and education later. They're enablers of capitalism’s dark underbelly, hoping to run out the clock on President Obama’s popularity and continue business as usual.

We in the reality-based community know that America’s can’t be saved until we fix health-care, implement an effective environment friendly energy policy and strengthen public education from coast to coast. America’s salvation stems from a comprehensive overhaul of our priorities and how we divide a rapidly shrinking pie. That is why I am donating to Accountability Now and I hope readers here do the same.

Nothing concentrates a politician’s mind like the prospect of a primary challenge. Accountability Now is a vehicle to obtain leverage and pressure Democrats such as Evan Bayh that opposing progressive change will put their careers in jeopardy. Delivering power to the Democratic Party in 2006 and 2008 was merely Phase One. Phase Two is transforming the Democratic Party as the people’s party rather than simply existing as the lesser corporatist evil in a two party duopoly.

This also happens to be the best way to support President Barack Obama. And we must not fail in that endeavor. At stake is nothing less than peace and prosperity.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Overhaul Healthcare Now!

This week, a close relative of mine had surgery. Hence, the escalating costs are very much on my mind today as well as the quality and access to medical care. She has health insurance but as we all know, insurance today costs more and covers less. Simply securing a room for her was ridiculously expensive.

President Obama is organizing a healthcare summit. Curious that even as our economy is suffering from a deflationary spiral, the cost of healthcare continues to spiral out of control. If our political system fails yet again to eliminate healthcare's chronic hyperinflation, most Americans are at risk of debtor's hell. Ultimately, the villains is America's "medical industrial complex" as Vice President Biden's chief economist, Jared Bernstein puts it.

We have appeased these predators for too long. The medical industrial complex is an evil empire that once and for all needs to be conquered on behalf of wage earners and small business owners. With respect to everyday living, the escalating cost of healthcare represents far more than an "existential threat" as we typically describe Iran's nuclear ambitions and imperils our national security to a much larger extent than the Taliban.

No more excuses, no more compromises and no more delays.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Uncle Michael

The Republican Party is compromised of three core constituencies:

1) Predatory corporatists who steal from wage earners and destroy the planet.

2) Religious lunatics who believe "end times" are just around the corner, proselytize that anyone who doesn't accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior is condemned to eternal damnation and don't support civil liberties for homosexuals.

3) Angry racists.

To the detriment of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh has been the face and voice of all three-core constituencies. To counteract the Limbaugh brand, Republicans recently elected Michael Steele, an African American as their party's national chairman. Mr. Steele, a shameless apologist for the GOP's predatory corporatists, is working hard to soften the party's social image and had the temerity to suggest that the hateful Rush Limbaugh was not the real leader of his party. Sadly, Mr. Steele was coerced into apologizing to Mr. Limbaugh after a resulting backlash from the GOP's xenophobic/racist/misogynistic core.

One wonders how any self-respecting and decent human being could apologize for suggesting their political party was not led by a man who once said,
"I mean, let’s face it, we didn’t have slavery in this country for over 100 years because it was a bad thing. Quite the opposite: slavery built the South. I’m not saying we should bring it back; I’m just saying it had its merits. For one thing, the streets were safer after dark."
From this day forward, anyone who cowardly panders to Rush Limbaugh and the Republican Party's insipid indecency he represents, should be called an "Uncle Michael."