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Corporate Welfare

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The Harsh Light of Cromnibus.

“One of the frustrating things about covering American politics from a vaguely left-liberal perspective is that many of the left-left theories turn out to be true, or true enough. You try to point out to the street protesters and tenured Marxists that things are more complicated than Noam Chomsky and the late Paul Sweezy would have you believe, and, all too often, it turns out they aren’t much more complicated. The richest 0.1 per cent really is getting richer and richer while most Americans see their living standards stagnate. The C.I.A. really did torture people in secret prisons overseas, and the N.S.A. has just received authorization to carry on gathering all of your phone records. The big banks and corporations really do run Washington—or, at least, that’s how it seems on this chilly December day.”

As the terrible-idea-filled, regulation-gutting “CRomnibus” became law earlier this month — thanks to a tag-team lobbying operation by Barack Obama and Jamie DimonThe New Yorker‘s John Cassidy laments what it means for American democracy: Namely, the banks clearly write the laws. “‘It’s morally reprehensible,’ Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat, told reporters. ‘They’re saying government bailouts are back.'”

By the way, if the bad news is too much to handle these days, there was one silver lining to the godawful CRomnibus: Crom may laugh at the four winds, but it does alright by space. Otherwise, well…

The Secret History of TARP.

“To put it another way, AIG owed these banks a bunch of money, but if it had to pay the banks, it would go bust. But if it didn’t pay the banks, the banks would lose money. The banks were willing to lose a little bit of money, but Geithner said no no, you don’t have to lose any money in the deal at all. The accusation is that Geithner and co. shot AIG in the head, and then let other banks feast on its rotting carcass (liberally spiced with government money). Paulson has actually confirmed this was the goal…It was an utterly selective political judgment to choose one set of actors over another set of actors.”

This one’s been in the bookmarks for awhile, but
in very related news, Matt Stoller surveys the troubling backstory of the bailouts emerging from what should be a sideshow: AIG shareholder Hank Greenberg suing the government for unfair treatment. (He only got half a sweetheart deal.) “Greenberg’s case is revealing that the bailouts were done selectively, and there was an attempt to cover up what happened…bailout opponents were largely correct, and the bailout apologists were lying and/or wrong.”

Geithner: Wrong on Everything

“At every turn on housing — on mass refinancing, on principal reduction, on leverage for homeowners in the bankruptcy process, on forcing banks to write down mortgages, on a modern-day HOLC–the evidence points to Tim Geithner preferring whatever option put the least pressure on banks, rather than actually helping ordinary people. He made far more excuses to do nothing than any effort to make a difference…In fact, the programs were never meant to help homeowners, designed only to ‘foam the runway’ for the banks, to spread out foreclosures and allow banks to absorb them.”

In the wake of Tim Geithner’s new rehab book tour — currently being aided and abetted by Wall Street’s usual court stenographer, Andrew Ross Sorkin — Dave Dayen says not so fast. “I don’t have to just focus on housing; this is indicative of Geithner’s worldview, which sees protecting the financial system at all costs as the only thing that matters.”

Yves Smith has also ably eviscerated Geithner’s game of “Three Card Monte”: “The entire edifice of the piece is a sleight of hand…The focus on TARP (and to a lesser degree, Lehman) allows Sorkin to omit mention of actions that were clearly Geithner’s doing…The bigger point, which is not lost on the public, was there were plenty of other options for saving the system. The one chosen, that left the banks largely unreformed and no one of any consequence punished, was clearly just about the worst of the available options, unless, of course, you are, like Geithner, a banker.”

And here’re economics and finance professors Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: “Whatever reasons he had for opposing assistance to underwater homeowners, a careful evaluation of the policy effects was not among them. The evidence is pretty clear: an aggressive bold attack on household debt would have significantly reduced the horrible impact of the Great Recession on Americans. The fact that Secretary Geithner and the Obama administration did not push for debt write-downs more aggressively remains the biggest policy mistake of the Great Recession.”

Noam Scheiber has his say in TNR: “[The article] inadvertently highlights something deeper about Geithner, which is the shocking extent to which he’s accepted financialization of the economy as a benign, even admirable, development. The people who spend their days shuffling trillions of dollars around the globe are really just like you and me, except with nicer offices. They deserve the same sympathy and respect, notwithstanding their abysmal track record. That blinkered view colors pretty much every one of Geithner’s utterances as he makes the rounds hawking books.”

Also of note: Geithner doesn’t seem to understand how Social Security works, and, in classic #ThisTown fashion, he — the Secretary of the Treasury! — just parrots the same ignorant Beltway line about zomg out-of-control entitlements as all Very Serious People™ do. To wit, from Geithner’s book:

“I remember during one Roosevelt Room prep session before I appeared on the Sunday shows, I objected when Dan Pfeiffer [a senior advisor to the Obama White House] wanted me to say Social Security didn’t contribute to the deficit. It wasn’t a main driver of our future deficits, but it did contribute. Pfeiffer said the line was a ‘dog whistle’ to the left…code to the Democratic base, signaling that we intended to protect Social Security.”

And here’s the LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik: “But let’s get to the nub. Does Social Security ‘contribute to the deficit’? The answer is, bluntly, no. By law, it can’t contribute to the federal deficit, because Social Security isn’t allowed to spend more than it takes in. Those who claim — as Geithner has at one point or another — both that the program contributes to the deficit yet will be forced to reduce benefits to retirees once its trust fund is depleted are trying to have things both ways: The reasoning behind the threat of reduced benefits is that Social Security can’t engage in spending money it doesn’t have, i.e., deficit spending. Pick one, fellas. If it can contribute to the deficit, then there’s no reason to cut benefits.”

So is there’s anything positive about Geithner’s rewriting of history here? Well, the Sorkin piece does include this telling anecdote: “At another point, [Geithner] cheerfully relayed a story that also appears in his book about the time he sought advice from Bill Clinton on how to pursue a more populist strategy: ‘You could take Lloyd Blankfein into a dark alley,’ Clinton said, ‘and slit his throat, and it would satisfy them for about two days. Then the blood lust would rise again.'”

Could somebody please tell me again why I should be excited about Hillary 2016?

Update: Sheila Bair offers her take. “On his book tour, to explain the need for bailouts, Tim has used a clever analogy of a pilot trying to land a plane that is on fire and in the back, sit the terrorists who started it. He argues that the pilot can’t leave the cockpit to put them in handcuffs. He first has to land the plane. The problem with this analogy is that the plane landed at the end of 2008. And let’s face it, instead of handcuffing the terrorists, we escorted them to the executive lounge.”

The New Gilded Age.

“[This] is, as I hope I’ve made clear, an awesome work. At a time when the concentration of wealth and income in the hands of a few has resurfaced as a central political issue, Piketty doesn’t just offer invaluable documentation of what is happening, with unmatched historical depth. He also offers what amounts to a unified field theory of inequality, one that integrates economic growth, the distribution of income between capital and labor, and the distribution of wealth and income among individuals into a single frame.”

In the NYRB, and in very related news, Paul Krugman sings the praises of Thomas Piketty’s new magnum opus, Capital in the 21st Century. “This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics…Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.”

As a counterpoint of sorts, CEPR’s Dean Baker — neither a Pollyanna nor a conservative — argues Piketty has picked up some of Marx’s bad habits, and finds the book too deterministic and despairing by far:

“[T]here are serious grounds for challenging Piketty’s vision of the future…the book [suffers from a] lack of attentiveness to institutional detail…In the past, progressive change advanced by getting some segment of capitalists to side with progressives against retrograde sectors. In the current context this likely means getting large segments of the business community to beat up on financial capital…[T]he point is that capitalism is far more dynamic and flexible than the way Piketty presents it in this book. Given that we will likely be stuck with it long into the future, that is good news.”

Update: Galbraith weighs in. “[This] is a weighty book, replete with good information on the flows of income, transfers of wealth, and the distribution of financial resources in some of the world’s wealthiest countries…Yet he does not provide a very sound guide to policy. And despite its great ambitions, his book is not the accomplished work of high theory that its title, length, and reception (so far) suggest.”

Rolling in the Deep.

“The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction. Washington is the headquarters of the Deep State, and its time in the sun as a rival to Rome, Constantinople or London may be term-limited by its overweening sense of self-importance and its habit, as Winwood Reade said of Rome, to ‘live upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face.’ ‘Living upon its principal,’ in this case, means that the Deep State has been extracting value from the American people in vampire-like fashion.”

In very related news, and in a somewhat overwritten but otherwise worthy piece, former GOP Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren summarizes the problem of America’s Deep State (a term Lofgren did not coin, borrowed from Turkey.) Think the military-industrial complex, now infused with financial sector/Pete Peterson-style rent-seeking. “[This] is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.”

With Friends Like These.

“If the reporter’s own mother was losing $90 of foods a month out of an already-meager allotment, or the reporter’s son or daughter, I very much doubt that reporter would describe that loss as merely symbolic. I don’t know that reporter thinks their own breakfast, their own lunch, or their own dinner is merely symbolic. This is real money coming out of the grocery carts of real families.”

In Salon, former USDA official Joel Berg reads the riot act to lazy journalists and spineless Dems over the soon-to-pass Farm Bill, which cuts Food Stamps for the poor while expanding crop insurance subsidies for wealthy farms. “It infuriates me, that we live in a country with tens of thousands of actual loopholes that benefit the ultra-rich, [whereas] this is a provision authorized by law, perfectly legal, perfectly sensible, that governors of both parties have utilized…[Calling Food Stamp cuts “closing a loophole” is] basically a fabricated excuse. And it’s a smokescreen to obfuscate the fact that they’re taking food away from hungry families.”

Berg goes on: “George W. Bush proposed a billion dollars in cuts to SNAP, and virtually all these people were aghast at how horrible it is. For them to then turn around and justify cuts that are [eight] times as large as what George W. Bush proposed is a little hard to swallow. I do think our political system is basically evil versus spineless now.”

This. It’s the same dynamic you see on the NSA, on the Grand Bargain, and on countless other issues. And this is why I hard to find it to take so many Dems seriously anymore. Here’s the bill passage pablum from Senate Ag Chair Debbie Stabenow: “Congress is on the verge of taking bipartisan action that will create jobs and help reduce the deficit. This is not your father’s Farm Bill. It implements major reforms and ends unnecessary subsidies…Congress can pass a bipartisan bill that helps take us into the future and beyond the policies of the past.” And here’s the missing subtext: “Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has received more contributions from the crop production industry than any other senator.”

Ain’t no use jiving, ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken, and we need to stop enabling it or it will never, ever get better.

Those Socialists at Goldman Sachs.

“U.S. businesses have never had it so good. Corporate cash piles have never been bigger, either in dollar terms or as a share of the economy. The labor market, meanwhile, is still millions of jobs short of where it was before the global financial crisis first erupted over six years ago. Coincidence? Not in the slightest.”

Karl Marx? Try Goldman Sachs. Their chief economist, Jan Hatzius, recently argued that “strength (in profits) is directly related to the weakness in hourly wages. In fact, 2012 saw the highest corporate profits and lowest wages and salaries ever recorded, as a percentage of GDP. But, please, let’s hear more whining and ridiculously overheated Holocaust metaphors from the top 0.1%.

Yes, the Game is Rigged.

“Well, the plutocrat class — that’s the top 16,000 households in this country — are where all the gains have been going since the end of the recession. Thirty-seven cents out of every dollar of increased income between 2009 and 2012 went to these 16,000 households — in a country of 314 million people…[Meanwhile] The average income of the bottom 90 percent of us has fallen 20 percent below where it was in the year 2000 — it fell from about $36,000 to $30,000. It has fallen back to the level of 1966, when Mustangs were new, Lyndon Johnson was president and we were prosecuting a war in Vietnam. 1966.”

In an interview with Joshua Holland, journalist and tax expert David Cay Johnston discusses how our current tax code, among other things, is fueling inequality. For example:

1) “Very, very wealthy people…are not required to report most of their economic gains and legally they can literally live tax-free or nearly tax-free by borrowing against their assets. You can borrow these days, if you’re very wealthy, against your assets for less than 2 percent interest and the lowest tax rate you could pay is 15 percent…[I]f you’re a billionaire and you borrow, let’s say, $10 million dollars a year to live on, you pay $200,000 interest, but your fortune through investing grows by $50 million. At the end of the year you pay no taxes, your wealth is up almost $40 million dollars and your cost was just the interest of $200,000.”

2) “Well, one of the reasons some Americans feel they’re being taxed to death is that if you add up our taxes, which are low compared to other modern countries, and then you add in private expenditures for things the tax system pays for in other countries — a lot of our health care costs, higher education costs, admissions and fees and tickets and licenses for a lot of things — lo and behold, we end up being a relatively high-tax country.”

Cold Irons Bound.

“Our prison system is increasingly built and run by for-profit corporations, who have a financial interest in increasing the number of people in prison while decreasing the amount of money it costs to house them. Since 1980, the US prison population has grown by 790%. We have the largest prison population of any nation in the history of the world. One in three African-American men will go to jail at some point in his life.”

In The Guardian Jill Filipovic examines the national shame that is our private prison-industrial complex. “Imprisoning that many people, most of them for non-violent offenses, doesn’t come cheap, especially when you’re paying private contractors…who are doing quite well living off of American corporate welfare -– at the expense of the American taxpayer.” $50 billion a year — that funds a lot of stadium.

This article was found, by the way, in Slate‘s discussion of Sesame Street’s new incarceration kit, which helps explain to 3-8-year-olds that their parent has gone to jail. “That this even has to exist in the first place shows how much pointless damage our prison system does not just to people who are caught up in the overly punitive, often racially biased justice system, but also to their families.”

It’d be nice to say this fiasco is on the national agenda, but, Jim Webb’s efforts in 2009 and some green shoots earlier in the year notwithstanding, Congress and the Obama administration, for all their talk of belt-tightening, seem pretty content with this ridiculous status quo. (One key reason: felons can’t vote.) But, hey, you know who they still don’t put in jail these days? Wolves of Wall Street. So there’s that.

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