The NYT publishes excerpts from the recently-unearthed love letters of Warren G. Harding, obviously a big character in my dissertation. “The president often wrote in code, in case the letters were discovered, referring to his penis as Jerry and devising nicknames, like Mrs. Pouterson, for Phillips.”
Oof. Poor guy. Politics, scandals and Teapot Dome aside, Harding was an eminently likable fellow, with a keen sense of his own limitations. It’s hard not to feel embarrassed for him, even 90 years later, that these are now out there among the public.
The silver lining for the Hardings, I suppose, is that at least Mencken never got his hands on these. Suffice to say, he was no fan of the president’s prose. “H]e writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”
The US Census Bureau announces the newly-reapportioned electoral map for 2010, and it shows electoral gains for (blue areas in) red states and the Northeast and Midwest diminishing (in growth rate, at least. The only state to actually lose people was Michigan.) Since the GOP will by and large control the redistricting process in most states, this is further bad news for Dems in the short term. Nonetheless, the overall demographic trends are still working in our favor.
In related news, Robert Cruickshank makes the modest proposal of removing the 435-member cap on the House, first passed in 1929. “In the 1930 Census, which found a population of just over 122 million, this produced 435 House districts of about 282,000 each. By 2012, however, a US House district in a state with more than 1 seat will represent about 708,000 people. That’s an increase of 2260% from 1790.“
“The message: the FCC Chairman caved to the most powerful interests and is adopting a rule that may end the Internet’s historic openness to all software and content as a level playing field. This will undermine the Internet’s role in as an engine of economic innovation and democratic participation. The rule was written by and for the giants like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast, who are cheering the rule. And the FCC Chairman is trying to fool the public into believing they should thank him.“
After earlier explaining why the FCC’s compromise(d) stance was “garbage”, Marvin Ammori laments Julius Genachowski’s sad sell-out on net neutrality. While the president is claiming victory here — it does, after all, follow the “solomonic or moronic” splitting-the-baby approach he likes to bring to every issue — everything you need to know about it is summed up in one sentence in Wired: “There was one group, however, which seemed content with the new rules: the nation’s cable and telecommunications companies, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon.“
“Here was the Delta Republicans’ historic task: negotiating terms of surrender to the Constitution, then reframing that Lost Cause as honorable, the better to preserve their insular plutocracy — perhaps their gravest sin in the first place — in order to integrate themselves more snugly into national and international circuits of corrupt wealth. Haley Barbour, who received his first Republican patronage job in 1970, is a true son of this confederacy.“
In the wake of Haley Barbour’s highly dubious misremembering of civil-rights era Mississippi, historian Rick Perlstein skewers the GOP poobah and presidential hopeful to the wall. “At every important turn in the story, Barbour emphasizes how little he remembers of this most intense period imaginable in his beloved home town — it really was no big deal, he insists…He’s a middle-aged Southern conservative. That is what his job is: to opportunistically ‘forget.‘”
“The Fed accepted a total of $1.31 trillion in junk-rated collateral between Sept. 15, 2008 and May 12, 2009 through the Primary Dealer Credit Facility. TARP was nothing compared to this.” (Also, $500 billion of that junk was rated CCC or below, which — given the rampant grade inflation going on at all the rating agencies — means it was really garbage.)
So, yeah, Wikileaks isn’t the only document dump in town this week. As mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act (after much pushing from below), the Federal Reserve today released information about some of its dealings from December 2007 to July 2010. And, while folks are just now delving into the intel, it already seems that some of the bodies buried during the financial crisis are now floating to the surface: “A quick analysis…indicates that Citigroup was the greatest beneficiary, drawing on a total of $1.8 trillion in loans, followed by Merrill Lynch, which used $1.5 trillion; Morgan Stanley, which drew $1.4 trillion; and Bear Stearns, which used $960 billion.“
In very related news, former Alan Grayson staffer (and a Hill friend of mine) Matthew Stoller lays out a compelling case for a harder stance against the Fed from the Left from now on. Some brief excerpts:
“It is good that this debate is happening. It means that we will be able to examine the real power structure of the American order, rather than the minor food fights allowable in our current political system. This will bring deep disagreements, profound ones, but also remarkable possibility. Modern American industrial policy is to push capital into housing, move manufacturing abroad, build a massive defense establishment, and maintain an oligarchic financial sector. This system isn’t a structural inevitability. People built it, and people are unbuilding it…
Like most American institutions, the Fed has shrouded itself in myth, with self-serving officials discussing the immaculate design of the central bank as untouchable, secretive, an autocratic and technocratic adult in the world of democratic children. But the Fed, and specifically the people who run it, are responsible for declining wages, for de-industrialization, for bubbles, and for the systemic corruption of American capital markets.”
Also on this topic, it comes out today that Bank of America was given a break by the SEC on a securities fraud settlement “‘because of the nation’s perilous economic situation at the time’ and the fact that it had received billions of dollars in taxpayer aid, according to the report by the SEC’s inspector general…Specifically, during settlement negotiations, Bank of America won relief from sanctions that could have hurt its investment banking business.“
To tie this back to the top, according to Bloomberg’s Lizzie O’Leary, who’s also been parsing the new Fed data, “52% of the collateral Bank of America pledged to the #Fed’s PDCF was rated Ba/BB or lower, or didn’t have available ratings.” (And, let’s keep in mind, PDCF was only one of several emergency programs.)
So, in other words, the government kept banks like BoA alive by buying up trillions in toxic assets and looking askance at their illegal activity. They repaid us with record bonuses for themselves and an epidemic of foreclosure fraud — the “getaway car for the financial crisis,” as a friend well put it — that’s screwing over millions of American families. And in terms of fixing bad behavior on the Street, nothing changed whatsoever. Boy, that’s some deal.
So it seems the deficit witchhunt has found some folks who float like a duck in the form of civilian federal (i.e., non-military and non-congressional) workers. (Burn, witches!) And so, in the name of austerity and the New Bipartisanship, the President has announced a federal pay freeze for the next two years, and implored the tattered remnants of OFA to play along. (Sadly, this isn’t even the most ridiculous message OFA has sent out this month.)
Now, according to the normal, Keynesian (i.e., reality-based) understanding of economics, cutting pay for workers — yes, Virginia, even those lazy, self-entitled public-sector workers — is a regressive move during a bad economy: It further hurts purchasing power. This is one of the reasons why Dems opposed the idea a few months ago.
But, of course, sacrifices must be made to appease the Deficit Gods, and this move will save about $60 billion over ten years. So if the economy takes a minor hit, and if it pushes some of the more talented help out of the government and into, say, government-contracting (where Uncle Sam will then pay out considerably more for the same work), well, that’s just the cost of finally getting Serious about the deficit.
Besides, one might argue, this pay freeze is just basic fairness. As the president himself said, “Lower-skilled workers are slightly overpaid relative to the private sector. And that’s not surprising, because it’s a unionized workforce.” Those dastardly unions!
Oh, wait, did I mention — also as part of the New Bipartisanship — the president laid the groundwork for capitulating on the Dubya tax breaks for the wealthiest 2%? This executive folding — and, really, who could’ve seen this coming? — will cost us $700 billion over the next ten years — That’s over 11 times more than the money ostensibly saved.
So, if you’re doing the math at home, folks, that means, taken together: We’ve cut millions of workers’ pay in the midst of a fragile economy. We’ve once again reified dumb GOP talking points about Big Guvmint jobs. And we’ve added $640 billion to the deficit, theoretically the reason for doing all of this in the first place. But, hey, the president looks bipartisan, and at least we drowned us a few witches. So, there’s that.
Update: See also Krugman: “Yep, that’s exactly what we needed: a transparently cynical policy gesture, trivial in scale but misguided in direction, and in effect conceding that your bitter political opponents have the right idea.“
After another embarrassing document dump by Wikileaks — this time diplomatic cables, next time Bank of America? — Attorney General Holder threatens the prosecution of Julian Assange, an Australian citizen — most likely under the Espionage Act, the same catch-all 1917 law used to lock up Eugene Debs back in the day.
First of all, Gawker‘s John Cook has already explained why this attempted line of prosecution doesn’t work. However docile the “nation’s watchdogs” remain on any other given day, the newspapers that published these leaks would have to be considered co-conspirators in any Espionage Act-related indictment. “We think its fairly obvious that the Department of Justice won’t go after the Times or any of the other papers involved in the story. But if it doesn’t, that’s just evidence that its attempt to use the Espionage Act to go after Assange isn’t about enforcing laws: It’s about retribution, harassment, and rattling sabers.“
Secondly, if Assange wants to avoid federal prosecution, perhaps he should just…I dunno…torture somebody? Or maybe rip off the American people for trillions of dollars? Or how ’bout just spying on Americans via warrantless wiretap? Apparently, disclosing those kinds of secrets is one of those look-forward-not-backward kinda things.
Let’s get real here. There’s no threat to our troops in these leaks — Even the Pentagon admits that. (A more overlooked problem, as a friend pointed out, is what this leak might mean for human rights workers.) Wikleaks’ methods are of the blunderbuss variety, yes. (That probably speaks in their favor: They don’t seem to tailor their leaks to suit a predetermined spin. They just dump data. And, hey, somebody should be doing the media’s job.) And, sure, Assange comes off as more than a bit pretentious, but what of it? If being a jackass were a crime, our prison system in this country would be completely broken…oh wait, it already is.
In the end, as Glenn Greenwald well put it, “our government and political culture is so far toward the extreme pole of excessive, improper secrecy that that is clearly the far more significant threat.” You’d think an administration that ran on unparalleled transparency in government might feel the same way. But, sadly, like its predecessor, the only crime this administration really seems to hate is whistleblowing.
“When historians look back to the moment when the post-Cold War reign of American power ended, they may well settle on 2010 as a crucial year. Everywhere, it seemed, there were signs that the long-predicted “rise of the rest” had finally occurred, whether in the newfound assertiveness of fast-growing China or the impatient diplomacy of new powers like Brazil and Turkey. Foreign Policy’s second annual list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers fully reflects that new world.“
As above, Foreign Policy has picked its Top 100 Global Thinkers of the year. And, while there are some really atrocious choices on here (for example, the man at #33, who much more deservingly made the list in the next entry too), the article is worth a perusing regardless. (FWIW, #65, #68, and #80 seem really iffy to me as well.)
“The War Room Hack Thirty is a list of our least favorite political commentators, newspaper columnists and constant cable news presences, ranked roughly (but only roughly) in order of awfulness and then described rudely. Criteria for inclusion included writing the same column every week for 30 years, war-mongering, joyless repetition of conventional wisdom, and making bad puns.”
Another enjoyable and illuminating recent list: Salon‘s Alex Pareene chooses America’s thirty most hackadocious pundits. The sad thing is, not only is every entrant on this list more than deserving of the scorn they receive here, but Pareene could easily have knocked the list up to fifty pundits with absolutely no diminution in lack-of-quality.
Next week, Foreign Policy magazine and its editor-in-chief Susan Glasser will be releasing its 2nd annual roster of the world’s greatest thinkers and doers in foreign policy. I have seen the list — and it’s impressively creative and eclectic. There is one name that is not on the FP100 who should be — and that is Chalmers Johnson, who from my perspective rivals Henry Kissinger as the most significant intellectual force who has shaped and defined the fundamental boundaries and goal posts of US foreign policy in the modern era.“
The Washington Note‘s Steve Clemons remembers one of his friends, colleagues, and mentors: Asia scholar, critic of empire, and coiner of the “developmental state,” Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010. (See also James Fallows’ remembrances on his passing.) Argued Johnson in 2009: “Make no mistake – whether we’re being bled rapidly or slowly, we are bleeding; and hanging onto our military empire will ultimately spell the end of the United States as we know it.”
That is the stark question driving Charles Ferguson’s well-laid-out prosecutorial brief Inside Job, which works to explain exactly how we ended up in the most calamitous economic straits since the 1930s. If you’ve been keeping up on current events at all, even if by comic books, stick figures, or Oliver Stone flicks, then you won’t be surprised by the frustrating tale Inside Job has to tell. But unlke the more inchoate and disorganized Casino Jack and the United States of Money earlier this year, which ultimately let its subject wriggle off the hook, Inside Job tells its sad, sordid story clearly, concisely, and well.
The central through-line of the financial crisis by now is well-known. Basically, Wall Steet banksters — relying heavily on “market innovations” (i.e. unregulated toys) like securitization, collaterized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps — spent the first decade of the 21st century engaged in a trillion-dollar orgy of avarice, criminality, and fraud. And, a few prominent casualties like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns aside, the perpetrators of these financial misdeeds mostly walked away unscathed from the economic devastation they wrought. In fact, they’re doing better than ever.
Said banksters got away with this from start to finish mainly becauset they could, thanks to thirty years of deregulation and an absolute bipartisan chokehold on the political process. So, when the bill came due in 2008, these masters of the free market just got the Fed to socialize their losses, thus handing the damage over to the American taxpayer by way of Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson (former Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs) and his successor, Tim Geithner (no stranger to Wall Street himself.)
As I said recently, my thoughts on the relative necessity of TARP have shifted a good deal since 2008, but, surprisingly, Ferguson doesn’t really get into that debate here. Inside Job is more broad in its focus: It aims instead to show how Wall Street has systematically corrupted both our political process and our economics departments over the course of decades, and nobody is safe from its wrath. Sure, it was probably a tremendously bad idea to let an Ayn Rand acolyte like Alan Greenspan call the shots for the American economy for so long, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are other fish to fry.
After all, it is President Clinton and his financial lieutenants, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, who preside over the death of Glass-Steagall, the original sin that precipitates all the later shenanigans. It is also they who work to keep prescient regulators like Brooksley Born from sounding the alarm. And, after the house of cards has collapsed in 2008, and President Obama steps up to the plate promising “change we can believe in,” who does he pull out of the bullpen to lead us but…the irrepressibly porcine Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, the Chair of the New York Fed? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. (But remember, folks, Obama is really an anti-business socialist.)
What goes for the US government goes for the academy as well. As Ferguson shows, Milton Friedman aficionadoes and Reagan/Bush policy guys like Marty Feldstein of Harvard and Glenn Hubbard of Columbia, who now find themselves atop prestigious Ivy League economics departments, are all too happy to give an academic imprimatur to bad bankster behavior, as long as they see a piece of the cut. (Nobody gets it worse than Columbia prof and former Fed governor Frederic Mishkin, who appears here to have walked into a battle of wits completely unarmed.)
In the meantime, Ferguson fleshes out the documentary with related vignettes on the financial crisis and those who brought us low — some work, some don’t. The movie begins with the cautionary tale of Iceland, about as pure a real-time case study into the abysmal failures of deregulation as you can ask for. (If that doesn’t do ya, try Ireland.) But the film ends as badly as it starts well, with an overheated monologue about the way forward, cut to swelling music and images of the Statue of Liberty — a cliche that serves to dissipate much of the pent-up anger of the last 90 minutes. (Perhaps Inside Job should’ve used the lightning strike.)
What’s more, at times Ferguson seems to try too hard to frame guilty men, and never more so than when he has a former psychiatrist-to-the-bankster-stars opine about cocaine abuse and prostitution all over the Street. Sure, it’s unsavory, and I see the ultimate point here — that these petty crimes could’ve been used to flip the lower-level traders if anyone had had tried to bring a RICO case against these jokers. But this sort of bad behavior, however frat-tastically douchey, is extraneous to the real crime at hand, and it seems really out of place when you’re using fallen crusader Elliot Spitzer as a witness for the prosecution.)
Still, overall, Inside Job is a very solid documentary that manages to capture its elusive quarry, and in a better world it would result in more serious consequences for the banksters who put us in this mess. Make no mistake — this is a crime story. As Massachusetts rep Michael Capuano observes in the trailer, and as Woody Guthrie put it many moons ago, “some rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” Thing is, when Pretty Boy Floyd or John Dillinger robbed banks back in the day, they got shot. When the banks rob you…well, that’s apparently another thing entirely.
Oh yes, it is: Delving into the exit poll numbers for California, Robert Cruickshank points out how the GOP have staked their territory on ground that is fast eroding. “[T]here’s really no evidence that the 2010 election portends long-term doom for Democrats. Instead it is Republicans who are in trouble. They won by appealing to a shrinking group of people who are determined to hog democracy and prosperity for themselves at the exclusion of the young and the nonwhite.” In other words, demography is destiny, and, when it comes to the GOP, to paraphrase the Peppers, even a tidal wave can’t save them all from Californication.
Speaking of Golden State politics: Unfortunately, Prop 19, which decriminalized marijuana usage, also went down to defeat. (A victim of the older midterm electorate, it still pulled more votes than any Republican in the state.) That being said, the die has been cast now — it’s only a matter of time. “‘There’s a fair amount of latent support for legalization in California,’ said Anna Greenberg…’It is our view, looking at this research, that if indeed legalization goes on ballot in 2012 in California, that it is poised to win.”
In a rebuke to the few Blue Dog remnants that have been calling for her ousting, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces her intention to run for Minority Leader in the 112th Congress. “[D]riven by the urgency of protecting health care reform, Wall Street reform, and Social Security and Medicare, I have decided to run.“
This is excellent news. As I’ve said here before, Speaker Pelosi has gotten things done on the Hill, and the blame for what happened Tuesday does not fall on her shoulders. To the contrary, she was often the only Democratic leader putting up a fight. Also, there is historical precedent: Twice during his long Speakership, Sam Rayburn cooled his heels as Minority Leader, waiting out the GOP blips. As the linked article points out, if Pelosi emulating Rayburn somehow encourages Obama to consider becoming more Trumanesque, well, all the better.