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A Wasted Opportunity. | So Now What?

“The task facing the makers of the Obama museum, however, will be pretty much exactly the opposite: how to document a time when America should have changed but didn’t. Its project will be to explain an age when every aspect of societal breakdown was out in the open and the old platitudes could no longer paper it over — when the meritocracy was clearly corrupt, when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery, when everyone knew that the politicians were bought and the worst criminals went unprosecuted and the middle class was in a state of collapse….It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in — and when an unlikely champion arose from the mean streets of Chicago to keep the whole thing propped up nevertheless.”

In Salon, Thomas Frank laments the wasted opportunity of the Obama years. “Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?”

Frank’s piece is definitely a bit overwritten, with its “mausoleum of hope” and all. That being said, I’m on board with his central thesis, as I’ve said several times before. (In fact, I was glad to see when fixing the old archives lately, that however hopey-changey I felt in 2008, I was more measured in my writing than I remembered, bringing up the ominous example of Herbert Hoover in my post-election post and wondering what the heck was going on within two weeks of Obama’s inauguration.)

Also, to get a sense of what a bad place our party is at these days, just look at Kevin Drum’s ridiculous response to this Tom Frank piece. Drum, mind you, is the official blogger of Mother Jones, named after the famous labor leader. And he writes: “It’s easy to recognize this as delusional…Because — duh — the hated neoliberal system worked. We didn’t have a second Great Depression. The Fed intervened, the banking system was saved, and a stimulus bill was passed…As for Obama, could he have done more? I suppose he probably could have, but it’s a close call.”

A close call? C’mon. As I responded on Twitter: “And all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This neoliberal horseshit would’ve made Mother Jones blanch. This piece sidesteps O’s GWOT record. 2. It ignores O’s penchant for starting negotiations where they should finish. 3. It presumes filibuster reform impossible. 4. It ignores that financial crisis response grew inequality. And so on.”

And, remember: This fatalistic “Americans are all centrists anyway, Obama did all he could” shrug is coming from the house blogger of one of our foremost progressive journals. It’s pathetic. This is yet another example of we progressive Democrats no longer having the courage of our convictions.

See also this very worthwhile Salon piece on Zephyr Teachout’s challenge to notorious douchebag Andrew Cuomo, by my friend and colleague Matt Stoller, which talks about this exact same phenomenon.

“The basic theory of the ‘New Democrat’ model of governance is that Wall Street and multinational corporate elites produce wealth through the creation of innovative financial practices and technology, and that Democrats should then help middle class and poor citizens by taxing this wealth, and then using some of it to support progressive social programs…This method of running the economy has become so accepted among Democratic leaders that writers like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Vox writer Matthew Yglesias now argue that there simply is no alternative…

“There is a hunger in the Democratic Party for making the party serve the interest of regular voters, not the rich. In 2008, liberal Democrats decisively broke from the Clinton legacy and voted for Barack Obama, with his mantra of hope and change. Obama, however, stocked his administration with Clinton administration officials like Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Janet Yellen. A joke going around Democratic circles after the election was that ‘Those supporting Obama got a president, those supporting Clinton got a job.’ Obama broke with the Clinton name, but brought the Clinton intellectual legacy, and Clinton’s Wall Street-backed machine, into governance…”

“The potentially transformative message of the Teachout-Wu campaign is that the problem is not solely one of personalities or tactical political approaches. Rather it is that the New Democrat model itself, and the Democratic party establishment, is fundamentally at odds with the party’s traditional liberalism…Teachout and Wu are trying to place the citizen at the center of policy. They do that through their proposals for public financing, for antitrust, for social insurance, infrastructure and labor.”

Without vision, the people perish. If we ever want to see the real and positive change that Americans were promised back in 2008, we progressives have to stop acting like we have no other option than to fall into line behind the leftiest of the centrists and clap harder for every occasional, diluted-to-all-hell scrap they throw our way. There’s more to life than Rockefeller Republicanism, and it’s not like we don’t have excellent historical templates to borrow from. We need to dream bigger, stop thinking the status quo is all there is, and push back.

Are Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu going to knock out Andrew Cuomo, a guy who’s quite obviously the poster child for everything that’s wrong with our party? Alas, probably not. But one does not always fight because there is hope of winning. And New York in 2014 is as a good a place as any to start the long uphill slog of taking back our party.

Update: Right on cue, the NYT delves into Andrew Cuomo’s hobbling of the state ethics commission. “[A] three-month examination by The New York Times found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.”More here.

Meanwhile, Blake Zeff thinks Cuomo may have met his match in US Attorney Preet Bharara. “[Bharara] has not only taken possession of the files from the corruption-fighting Moreland Commission that Cuomo recently closed down as part of a budget deal, but has also publicly floated the possibility of investigating the governor’s alleged meddling in its investigations.”

The Grifter Prince.

“Geithner is at heart a grifter, a petty con artist with the right manners and breeding to lie at the top echelons of American finance at a moment when the government and financial services industry needed someone to be the face of their multi-trillion dollar three card monte…After reading this book and documenting lie after lie after lie, I’m convinced that there’s more here than just a self-serving corrupt official. There’s an entire culture, of figures at Treasury, the Federal Reserve, in the entire Democratic Party elite structure, and in the world of journalism, a culture in which Geithner is seen as some sort of role model.”

A late addition to this recent and well-deserved pile-on: Friend and fellow congressional staffer Matt Stoller writes in Vice on Geithner’s Stress Test and the “Con-Artist Wing of the Democratic Party.” “The task of reclaiming democratic power will involve making work at Geithner’s Treasury a black mark on a resume, an embarrassment and a shameful episode…Americans are not stupid, and they saw what Geithner, as the head economic official in a Democratic administration, did.”

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.”

“Too Fast to Fail.”

“The issue here is that people are earning large amounts of money by using sophisticated computers to beat the market. This is effectively a form of insider trading…[T]he front-running high speed trader, like the inside trader, is providing no information to the market. They are causing the price of stocks to adjust milliseconds more quickly than would otherwise be the case. It is implausible that this can provide any benefit to the economy. This is simply siphoning off money at the expense of other actors in the market.”

In the wake of Michael Lewis’ publicity blitz for Flash Boys, and per his “let’s focus on solutions” argument to Piketty above, CEPR’s Dean Baker explains how to easily fix the problem of high-frequency trading. “[O]ne simple method…would virtually destroy the practice. A modest tax on financial transactions would make this sort of rapid trading unprofitable since it depends on extremely small margins.”

A Wagonful of Crooks.

“Attorneys, forensic accountants and consumer advocates have long suspected that banks were systematically creating improper documents to prove ownership of loans. Foreclosure defense lawyers use the term ‘ta-da’ endorsement to describe situations in which they say a document appears, as if by magic, in the bank’s possession as needed in a foreclosure case…The manual…appears to provide step-by-step instructions for a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage ‘Default Docs Team’ and foreclosure attorneys if a blank endorsement is in a file and the attorney wants that note executed.”

In another example of banksters taking notes on a criminal f**king conspiracy, the NY Post get their hands on Wells Fargo’s How-To-Manual for ginning up fraudulent foreclosure documents. “Foreclosure experts called these procedures shocking. ‘It’s an explosive document,’ said forensic accountant Jay Patterson.” Hey, can somebody go to jail now?

Update: Nope, doesn’t look like it. “Four years after President Obama promised to crack down on mortgage fraud, his administration has quietly made the crime its lowest priority and has closed hundreds of cases after little or no investigation, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Thursday.”

Revolving Doormen.

“One afternoon in San Francisco, Lehane explained his operating principle this way: ‘Everyone has a game plan until you punch them in the mouth. So let’s punch them in the mouth…In most situations,’ Lehane continued, ‘there are people who either have dirty hands or their own agendas. Whenever somebody complains that this stuff has happened to them, I say, “There’s a long line of people behind you.”‘”

Ever feel like maybe part of the problem with both our Party and our politics is that they tend to reward amoral, money- and power-driven, self-aggrandizing douchebags? Hey, you’re right! Exhibit A: Chris Lehane, previously Al Gore’s flak in 2000 (he also had a small part to play in Dean’s demise in 2004), who’s given the soft-focus treatment in this week’s New York Magazine. “‘You are only seeing 10 percent of what I do,’ Lehane said. The private clients have included Goldman Sachs, Michael Moore, the Weinstein Company and Boeing.”

And here’s Exhibit B: Peter Orszag, who’s currently trying to shield his big Citibank payday from public scrutiny. “Typically, documents in a civil-court proceeding are accessible to the public, but Orszag succeeded last year in quietly convincing a judge to seal financial records submitted in the case, including the salary he makes as a Citigroup vice president, from public view. In that request, Orszag worried that disclosure of his income might harm his career and ‘damage any eventual return to Federal Government service or other public office.’”

Yeah, because everybody’s clamoring for that. Sigh, This Town. Lehane’s right about one thing, tho’. Everywhere you look in DC, there are people who don’t know anything about anything strenuously clambering up the ranks, their only two skills of note shameless self-promotion and a brazen flexibility with regard to what should be basic Democratic principles. Or, as I put it more charitably a few years ago:

“That’s my rub too, and it dovetails with larger problems I have with DC political culture. More often than not, the people who tend to succeed here are the ones who keep their head down, play the DC game, stay resolutely non-ideological and unobtrusive in their opinions. never go out on a limb, never say or do anything that could hurt their bid to be a Big (or Bigger) Shot down the road. (Hence, the whole phenomenon of The Village.)The problem is, these plodding, risk-averse careerist types are exactly the type of people you don’t want making decisions in the end, because they will invariably lead to the plodding, risk-averse and too-often rudderless politics of the lowest common denominator.”

But I guess, as the The Wire made clear years ago, that’s pretty much the rule in any institution or industry, so there’s not much use in complaining about the way things are and have always been. Game’s the same, just got more fierce.

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.”

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%.

Banksters of America.

“‘Everyone knew that we weren’t helping people,’ said Erik Schnackenberg, a customer-service manager who left Urban Lending in 2011…’They were giving us all the pressure and none of the power to change anything. It was this absurd, self-contained ecosystem of worthlessness.’”

Bloomberg‘s Hugh Son delves into Urban Lending, the fraudulent front group/vendor that serial offender Bank of America worked with to profit from families facing foreclosure. “Instead of helping homeowners as promised under agreements with the U.S. Treasury Department, Bank of America stalled them with repeated requests for paperwork and incorrect income calculations…Tens of thousands of HAMP modifications were improperly denied by Bank of America and Urban Lending since April 2009.” Sure would be nice if somebody went to jail for this. (Image via Rolling Stone.)

Update: “As Judge Jed Rakoff recently wrote in a scathing essay in the New York Review of Books, the failure to prosecute those responsible for the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression ‘must be judged one of the more egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years.’” In very related news, David Dayen makes the case for Jamie Dimon’s long-overdue perp walk. “Open the business pages at random and they often read like the police blotter.”

Trolling the House of Morgan.

“JPMorgan’s bankers are getting used to business deals with young men who communicate in emojis and text-message abbreviations…Yet, when the bank devised the promotional Q&A, it may not have fully grasped the extent to which new media has transformed how people share information, and how this has tipped existing structures of power.”

Er…let’s not overdo it. Existing structures of power haven’t changed at all, and, after a bad week’s press, JP Morgan is still laughing all the way to the bank. Still, I was proud to get in early on the co-opting of JP Morgan’s inane #AskJPM forum on Twitter last week, which got tweets of mine mentioned in BusinessWeek, WaPo, The New Yorker, and various other venues — undoubtedly the strangest being a somber tweet-reading by the venerable Stacy Keach. In any case, if any of those links have led you back here to GitM this week, welcome, and thanks for dropping by.

Still Too Big to Jail.

“‘I think that there is a great sense of frustration and a sense of injustice that the laws have not been enforced in the way most Americans think they should have been,’ said Miller, who wrote the report’s chapter on regulatory enforcement. He notes that 79% of Americans ‘think more bankers and other financial executives should have been criminally prosecuted for their role in the financial crisis.’”

A welcome new report drafted by Americans for Financial Reform and Mike Konczal and championed by Senator Elizabeth Warren makes the much-needed case for further financial reform.“Today, the four biggest banks are 30% larger than they were five years ago. And the five largest banks now hold more than half of the total banking assets in the country.”

At the moment, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 ascendancy to the Democratic nomination, and subsequently the presidency, is looking like a virtual lock. But if Clinton really wants to nip a serious 2016 primary challenge in the bud, she’d start moving to the left on these matters. I’m not holding my breath. (Striking Guy Fawkes Day “Million Mask March” pic above via the OWS Twitter feed.)

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.”

Jamie Dimon, meet the New Day Co-op.

“The hiring-as-bribery in China charges against the bank took a turn for the worse late last night after Dawn Kopecki of Bloomberg News reported the Justice Department and SEC’s investigation has ‘expanded to countries across Asia’ and JPMorgan has itself flagged 200 of its own hires for an internal investigation. What’s worse is that the review has uncovered an ‘internal spreadsheet that linked appointments to specific deals pursued by the bank.’”

N***a, is you takin’ notes on a criminal f**king conspiracy?Buzzfeed‘s Matthew Zeitlin explains what the banksters at J.P. Morgan could learn from Stringer Bell and the New Day-Co-Op. “[S]pelling out in a spreadsheet your exact intentions about hiring specific people for their parents’ help for specific deals is probably not considered best practices.”

Worse than Enron? Shrug.

“Look at the numbers. Of the $410 million, $125 million represents the disgorgement of illicit profits from Morgan’s scheme — money the bank wouldn’t have collected at all if it operated within the law. (The sum is supposed to be returned to ratepayers.) So that doesn’t count. The real punishment is the balance of $285 million. How badly will that hurt JPMorgan Chase? Well, the big bank collected $97 billion in net revenue last year, so it represents a little more than a single day of intake.

Ask yourself: If you could steal $125 million, with the only downside being that if you got caught you might have to give the money back and lose a single day’s income, would you give it a go? Me too.”

On the announcement that J.P. Morgan will be paying a pittance for engaging in massive Enron-style energy fraud, the L.A. Times‘ Michael Hiltzik calls out the regulatory sham for what it is. “Our top regulators actually think they’ve gotten the better of a huge illegal enterprise, which is a good sign that they’re delusional. They didn’t even get Morgan to admit that it had done anything wrong.”

It’s tempting to hate on FERC for agreeing to this sucker’s deal, but let’s face it, this type of wink-and-a-nod, Potemkin oversight is endemic across our supposed regulatory agencies. (See also: the (lack of) fallout from JP Morgan’s Whale Trade.)

It used to be, not even all that long ago, people and companies who engaged in systemic energy and financial fraud went to prison. Now…not so much. Today, they not only continue to be treated as esteemed citizens by the highest levels of government — They even have the temerity to complain they’re being over regulated.

Meanwhile, our ostensibly progressive administration spends much of its days trying to prosecute whistleblowers and poor people to the fullest extent of the law. Some system. Honestly, if you’re not disgusted at this point, you’re not paying attention.

Endless Summers.

“Finally we have Summers’ role in the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Summers was one of the people who pushed the Democrats in Congress to accept the no (real) conditions TARP bailout given to them by Henry Paulson. Once in the White House he was the staunch defender of the bankrupt banks belligerently challenging anyone who proposed letting the market work its magic and put these behemoths out of our misery. As a result of Summers’ work the too big to fail banks are bigger and more profitable than ever.”

As Summers supporters — including the President — try to push him for Federal Reserve Chairman (over the more experienced Janet Yellen), Dean Baker asks the obvious question: At this late date, why, exactly, should Larry Summers be head of anything? “In short, if we look at Larry Summers track record in dealing with crises it is pretty abysmal. But on attendance, he gets an ‘A.’”

Seriously, how many more times does this guy have to be wrong? And why pick for Fed Chair someone, as Sheila Bair succinctly put it, who was clearly “part of the deregulatory cabal that got us into the 2008 financial crisis?”

And, let’s be clear: Even putting that trillion-dollar fiasco aside — other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play — from attacking Brooksley Born in the late 90′s to his embarrassing interim at Harvard (where, on top of everything else, Wonderboy lost the endowment $2 billion) to ham-stringing the 2009 stimulus out of the gate, everything Summers touches turns to lead.

But, lo, here he is once again, being force-fed to us by the usual suspects as a brilliant speaker of economic truths. Yet another classic case of failing-up in Washington, where it’s always better to be wrong and with the herd than prescient and correct.

Update: “Although Summers had been an early advocate of Warren’s idea to establish a consumer regulator to deal with abusive lending, he was rankled by the support she received from other administration officials, particularly Christina Romer, who chaired Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.” Among his many other sins, Summers also went out of his way to block Elizabeth Warren as CFPB head — a bureau she in effect created — apparently because of personal pique. So, yeah, let’s put this guy in charge. He is so SMRT!

Shudder Island.


If Gatsby didn’t satisfy your hankering for Leo di Caprio amid the playgrounds of the idle rich, the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street is now online, also with Matthew McConaughey, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Jean Dujardin, Jon Bernthal, Kyle Chandler, Spike Jonze, Shea Whigham, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, and the inimitable Joanna Lumley.

I dunno…I know it’s Scorsese and all that, but at least Gatsby had period panache going for it. This looks like yet another generic Rise and Fall of the Financial Sector Douchebros, and Boiler Room, Margin Call and the Wall Streets, among other films, already covered these useless yahoos enough to my satisfaction. We’ll see.

Too Big to Countenance.

“Today, the nation’s four largest banks — JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo — are nearly $2 trillion larger than they were before the crisis, with a greater market share than ever. And the federal help continues — not as direct bailouts, but in the form of an implicit government guarantee. The market knows that the government won’t allow these institutions to fail. It’s the ultimate insurance policy — one with no coverage limits or premiums.”

Joining ranks across the partisan divide, Senators Sherrod Brown and David Vitter introduce legislation aimed at ending Too Big To Fail: “The senators want the major banks to increase their own tangible equity so that shareholders, and not just taxpayers, take responsibility for their risky actions. They want the banks to have greater liquidity by holding more assets they can immediately turn into cash in a financial crisis. They say they want to keep Wall Street banks that enjoy government backing from gaming the financial system with credit derivatives and other risk-inflated schemes, which even JP Morgan Chase’s own employees failed to catch until too late.”

Naturally, the banks will be fighting this with everything they have, and Goliath usually wins these fights in Washington. They’re already leaning on one of their favorite Senators, Chuck Schumer, to block Brown from ascending to Chair of the Senate Banking Committee. Nonetheless, the progressive-conservative alliance here suggests, at the very least, a new wrinkle in the game.

In related news, companies are also wheeling out the Big Guns to threaten the Securities and Exchange Commission over potential new corporate disclosure rules for political spending — namely, making businesses disclose their campaign donations to their shareholders. Seems innocuous enough, but of course, “[t]he trade associations lining up in opposition to the rule amount to a roll call of the most politically influential — and highly regulated — industries in the country.”

Inequality is Way UnCool.


A must-watch going around the Interweb: A fellow who sounds not unlike the guy from King Missile explains concisely and succinctly how terrible wealth inequality has gotten in America. “Since 1976, the share of national income earned by the top one percent of workers has nearly tripled, from 9 percent to 24 percent…While the earnings of the top 1 percent have tripled, the average household income has effectively stagnated.”

In very related news, the Dow reaches a new high — 14,164 — even as household income hits a decade low. “As a percentage of national income, corporate profits stood at 14.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, the largest share at any time since 1950, while the portion of income that went to employees was 61.7 percent, near its lowest point since 1966.”

Pay-to-Play, Enshrined. | The Veal Pen.

[I]n establishing OFA and through it extending an open palm to Washington’s corps of lobbyists and their masters, Obama is in danger of hitting the history books as a president who gamed, exploited, and ultimately joined a corrupt system rather than cleaning it up…Millions of Americans voted for Barack Obama thinking he understood what’s happening and would do something about it. Instead, he’s making things worse.

Common Cause president Bob Edgar reads Obama the riot act for his many transgressions on the campaign finance front. “He still has time to change course and I’m enough of an optimist to hold out hope that he will. But it’s getting tougher.” On this as on so many other fronts, I myself am no longer that optimistic. (Obama Lucy picture via this Atlantic Monthly article.)

“We talk a lot about broken models. The DC progressive model is broken. It does nothing but facilitate the injustices readily evident in this case.” In related news, and in the wake of his recent Salon piece about the administration’s phantom financial fraud task force, Dave Dayen argues its time for progressive organizations in DC to get adversarial or go home. Well-meaning people all over this country concerned about any number of issues hand over their hard-earned money to these groups, and they aim to speak broadly for liberal values. The accountability doesn’t stop on Wall Street. It needs to be shared by the DC progressive community.”

Update: “There’s a certain conventional wisdom that President Obama wants stronger campaign finance laws, and to protect our democracy from the corrupting effects of money in politics. It’s a story that you should no longer believe.” The Sunlight Foundation weighs in against Obama as well. “The arc of the Obama presidency may be long, but so far, it has bent away from transparency for influence and campaign finance, and toward big funders.”

Warren vs the Banksters.


“People may have outrage fatigue about Wall Street, and more stories about billionaire greedheads getting away with more stealing often cease to amaze. But the HSBC case went miles beyond the usual paper-pushing, keypad-punching­ sort-of crime, committed by geeks in ties, normally associated­ with Wall Street. In this case, the bank literally got away with murder – well, aiding and abetting it, anyway.”

In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi explains how and why the Justice Department refused to prosecute HSBC for sundry violations of the law. In short, they were Too Big to Jail. “An arrestable class and an unarrestable class. We always suspected it, now it’s admitted. So what do we do?”

In related news, Wall Street bankers throw one of their customary hissyfits over a gaggle of fully complicit, bought-and-paid-for regulators finally being asked a hard question or two by the Senate Banking Committee — thanks to its and our new champion, Senator Elizabeth Warren. “The anonymous banker followed up [with Politico, naturally]: ‘Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz are dueling for the title of ‘most extreme fringe freshman senator.”

Anonymous Banker, let me choose my words carefully: Go fuck yourself. If this administration’s promises of change-we-can-believe-in were worth a dime, you and so many others would be doing hard time right about now.

The Clown has a Point.


Hey all. Apologies yet again for the lack of updates around here. As I said a couple of times last year, I’m still figuring out where the old Ghost fits in the scheme of life these days. There’s a negative feedback loop happening where I don’t post at GitM that often, so fewer people swing by here, so there are no comments or feedback on the posts that I do spend some time on, which makes me even less inclined to post, so thus even fewer people swing by here…you get the point.

I was thinking of starting up the movie reviews around here again for 2013, but having just spent a looong time on another giant project that few if any will ever peruse, I’m not really seeing the point of dedicating myself to spending even more hours of my day writing long-winded reviews that nobody ever reads. It’s just a lot of work with very little gain. I’ve been writing this blog for over 13 years and the reviews for over ten — If either were ever going to gain an audience, they would have done so by now.

As for politics…eh. On the domestic front, all reasonable and common-sense attempts at achieving forward progress have been stymied for years now, mainly because of bipartisan infatuation with a totally fake problem. Sure, Obama (finally) talked a good game last night about climate change, voting rights, infrastructure, equal pay, housing, the minimum wage — things we expected from a progressive president four years ago, and that would undeniably make a profound difference for a lot of American families. But this is year five of this presidency — We know the score by now. When push comes to shove, he’ll be promoting Simpson-Bowles nonsense, extolling the Grand Bargain again, and advocating a chained CPI, all because, presumably, those evil, evil Republicans made him. Good cop, bad cop.

Over on foreign policy, our Hope-and-Change president has accorded himself the power to kill anyone he so desires by executive fiat. And the response? Ostensible progressives back this ridiculous play, and a full 83% of America is totally cool with Death from Above without due process. Awesome.

Speaking of due process, it is flat-out-ridiculous that we live in a world where Aaron Swartz was hounded to suicide by a DoJ-enabled Javert for freeing up JSTOR articles, of all things, and Bradley Manning is kept in a tiny box as Public Enemy #1 for exposing bad behavior by the military. And yet, our national torture experiment has still gone unpunished (because, hey, it worked!), and not a single bankster of note has been prosecuted, despite the massive levels of fraud that have been exposed and that brought the American economy to its knees. To the contrary, the president can’t stop asking self-serving and patently corrupt assholes like Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein how we can better structure our public policy to cater to their whims.

Admittedly, I partake in it myself semi-often, but I’m just tired of a Twitter-driven political-journalism culture that seems to think that the lulz of Marco Rubio being really thirsty is a more pressing issue to cover than the myriad holes in his obviously stupid, self-serving, and faith-based ideas. Or that Jack Lew having a funny signature is a more vital point to discuss about the probable next Treasury Secretary than whatever the hell he was doing at Citigroup when the goddamned house was burning down.

I hate on the hipster Twitter kids, but establishment journalism is even worse. We live in a world where the totally inane Politico rules the roost and “wins the day”. Where our papers of record will keep warrantless wiretaps and drone bases quiet for years because the powers-that-be asked them to. Where idiot right-leaning “centrists” like David Brooks, David Gergen, Gloria Borger, and Cokie Roberts are queried for their inane views constantly, even though they don’t know anything and have never done anything with their lives but constantly mouth Beltway platitudes as if they were Holy Scripture. Where “journalists” like Chuck Todd, John King, and Jake Tapper — the latter of whom, let’s remember, made it big by kissing-and-telling on his Big Date with Monica Lewinsky — are taken seriously because they tsk-tsk about deficits like Serious People™ and passively nod along whenever obvious liars are lying. This isn’t journalism. It’s Court Stenography, Versailles-on-the-Potomac.

Ain’t no use jiving. Ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken. So, no, I don’t feel particularly inclined to talk about politics these days either, because there’s only so many times you can bellow in rage about it all, especially when nobody swings by this little corner of the Internet anyway. I’m not officially quitting GitM or anything, but let’s be honest. I’m not really what sure when, if ever, it’ll get its groove back. I’m not sure I see the point. And besides, as Richard said, a withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.

The Anti-Wal-Mart.

Mr. Sinegal, whose father was a coal miner and steelworker, gave a simple explanation. ‘On Wall Street, they’re in the business of making money between now and next Thursday,’ he said. ‘I don’t say that with any bitterness, but we can’t take that view. We want to build a company that will still be here 50 and 60 years from now.’

This article is seven years old now, so I don’t know if their admirable corporate policies have survived the Great Recession. (Update: Apparently, they have.) Nonetheless, from 2005 and as seen floating around on Facebook of late, the NYT’s Steve Greenhouse explains how CostCo became the anti-Wal-Mart. “[N]ot everyone is happy with Costco’s business strategy. Some Wall Street analysts assert that Mr. Sinegal is overly generous not only to Costco’s customers but to its workers as well. Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club.” Oh, yeah, let’s nip that in the bud, then. Assholes.

The Fed, Unreserved.

“Fed action this week was also primed by the Jackson Hole conference from a few weeks ago. There, two important papers and a statement by Ben Bernanke set the tone of the future of monetary debate during the Great Recession. Let’s examine them in animated gif format.” The estimable Mike Konczal of Rortybomb explains current monetary policy through animated gifs.

Lithwick: It’s Not Us. It’s You.


For the past several years, while the mainstream media was dutifully reporting on all things Kardashian or (more recently) a wholly manufactured debt-ceiling crisis, ordinary people were losing their health care, their homes, their jobs, and their savings.

For the benefit of the willfully dense — i.e. all the telegenic denizens of the Village — Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick explains the basic meaning behind Occupy Wall Street: “They are holding up signs that are perfectly and intrinsically clear: They want accountability for the banks that took their money, they want to end corporate control of government. They want their jobs back. They would like to feed their children. They want–wait, no, we want– to be heard by a media that has devoted four mind-numbing years to channeling and interpreting every word uttered by a member of the Palin family while ignoring the voices of everyone else.

Calvin, Job Creator.


Also making the rounds on Facebook, this ancient Calvin & Hobbes strip anticipates the socialized-losses-for-me-but-not-for-thee mindset of contemporary “job creators.” Thank goodness they only have one-and-a-half major political parties behind them to back their play.

Decades of Divergence.


In its report, the budget office found that from 1979 to 2007, average inflation-adjusted after-tax income grew by 275 percent for the 1 percent of the population with the highest income…By contrast, the budget office said, for the poorest fifth of the population, average real after-tax household income rose 18 percent. And for the three-fifths of people in the middle of the income scale, the growth in such household income was just under 40 percent.

A brand-spankin’ new CBO report concludes what we all already know: Income inequality has surged since 1981, and government, post-Reagan, has consistently failed to address the problem. “‘The equalizing effect of federal taxes was smaller’ in 2007 than in 1979, as ‘the composition of federal revenues shifted away from progressive income taxes to less-progressive payroll taxes,’ the budget office said.” But, hey, let’s sweat that deficit.

Bailout 2: BoA Boogaloo.


This move reflects either criminal incompetence or abject corruption by the Fed. Even though I’ve expressed my doubts as to whether Dodd Frank resolutions will work, dumping derivatives into depositaries pretty much guarantees a Dodd Frank resolution will fail.

Along the same lines, Naked Capitalism‘s Yves Smith responds to the disclosure that repeat offender Bank of America is trying — with the Fed’s help — to foist their more toxic assets into FDIC-backed accounts (meaning that taxpayers will eat the losses.) “[T]his move amounts to a direct transfer from derivatives counterparties of Merrill to the taxpayer, via the FDIC, which would have to make depositors whole after derivatives counterparties grabbed collateral.

Continues Smith: “The FDIC is understandably ripshit…Bill Black said that the Bloomberg editors toned down his remarks considerably. He said, ‘Any competent regulator would respond: ‘No, Hell NO!’ It’s time that the public also say no, and loudly, to yet another route for running a drip feed from taxpayers to banksters.‘” (Cartoon via here.)

The Wisdom of the Deficit Owl.


What fiscal crisis? The great unasked question in this summer of sound-and-fury is ‘why?’ The United States has many problems at the moment: a high-and-stubborn unemployment rate, a foreclosure catastrophe, a slowing economy that has not recovered and will not recover…and the ongoing challenges of infrastructure, energy and climate change. Fiscal crisis? The entire thing is a figment, made up of wise-men’s warnings repeated endlessly.

James K. Galbraith, who warned of the deficit witchhunt a year ago, weighs in on the debt ceiling endgame currently playing out in Washington, as well as Obama’s role in it:

[W]hat do we have, from a President who claims to be a member of the Democratic Party? First, there is the claim that we face a fiscal crisis, which is a big untruth. Second, a concession in principle that we should deal with that crisis by enacting massive cuts in public services on one hand and in vital social insurance programs on the other. This is an arbitrary cruelty. Third, a refusal to stand on the strong ground of the Constitution, against those whose open and declared purpose is tear that document and the public credit to shreds.

Yep, that’s about it. When it became clear that Obama had fully inhaled voodoo economics and was once again going to give away the store in these needless negotiations, I said on Twitter: ““I’ll take [Boehner/Cantor/Lannisters/Littlefinger] at his word!” I just realized: Obama negotiates like Ned Stark. Now, winter is coming.

But, really, that gives this president too much credit. He’s not a nobly deluded sap. He’s getting exactly what he wants: a Third Way-approved Grand Bargain that takes money out of a sputtering economy and needlessly slashes our social insurance system, all in response to a problem that is basically imaginary.

But, of course, the chatterers and the Serious People™ will applaud this bargain as being wise, centrist, and independent no matter what damage it causes — hey, only Nixon can go to China! And all the while the economy and labor market will continue to tank. What a fucking fiasco. [Rorschcat via here.]

There’s Money in the Memory Hole.

The contrast in fortunes between those on top of the economic heap and those buried in the rubble couldn’t be starker. The 10 biggest banks now control more than three-quarters of the country’s banking assets. Profits have bounced back, while compensation at publicly traded Wall Street firms hit a record $135 billion in 2010. Meanwhile, more than 24 million Americans are out of work or can’t find full-time work, and nearly $9 trillion in household wealth has vanished. There seems to be no correlation between who drove the crisis and who is paying the price.

As Bank of America pays a pittance to other banks for its malfeasance, former chair of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Phil Angelides looks into how the winners are now rewriting the history of the 2008 financial collapse. “So, how do you revise the historical narrative when the evidence of what led to economic catastrophe is so overwhelming and the events at issue so recent? You and your political allies just do it. And you bet on the old axiom that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth can tie its shoes.” Attorney General Schneiderman, our nation turns its lowly eyes to you.

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