No one with any sense is going to argue that AIG should be doing what it is doing or that the insurance giant isn’t absolutely tone-deaf to the dirge playing within the economy. But the effort and the PR agenda to reclaim the bonus money pursued by our new president just underscores the “confusion and contradiction” his actions and words engender.
President Obama vowed to try to stop the faltering insurance giant American International Group from paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to executives, as the administration scrambled to avert a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street that could complicate Mr. Obama’s economic recovery agenda.
We’re talking “hundreds of millions” of dollars here. But when confronted by a omnibus spending bill with hundreds of billions of dollars in 9,000 pork projects, meh, no biggie – “last year’s business.”
Glad they finally noticed:
The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street, worried that anger at financial institutions could also end up being directed at Congress and the White House and could complicate President Obama’s agenda.
Of course the greatest stoker of this populist backlash has been the Obama administration. I’ll be the first to agree that some of the financial institutions, such as AIG recently, have played into the populist condemnation by the administration, but instead of being specific about the AIGs of the world, they have instead gone after an entire industry to the point that “banks and Wall Street” are synonymous with crooks, swindlers and liars. Having established that narrative, seemingly purposely, there’s now a huge backlash building which may, in fact, cripple the administration’s efforts pertaining to both.
“We’ve got enormous problems that need to be addressed,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, said in an interview. “And it’s hard to address because there’s a lot of anger about the irresponsibility that led us to this point.”
“This has been welling up for a long time,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s aides said any surge of such a sentiment could complicate efforts to win Congressional approval for the additional bailout packages that Mr. Obama has signaled will be necessary to stabilize the banking system.
As it is, there have already been moves in Congress to limit compensation to executives at banks and Wall Street firms that are receiving government help to survive.
Beyond that, a shifting political mood challenges Mr. Obama’s political skills, as he seeks to acknowledge the anger without becoming a target of it. A central question for Mr. Obama is whether his cool style — “in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger,” he said in his address to Congress last month — will prove effective when the country may be feeling more emotional.
And the country is feeling emotional because the administration has been making emotional arguments targeting the industry it wants to help. Not very smart politics. And they’ve now finally realized that.
“Never underestimate the capacity of angry populism in times of economic stress,” said Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. “A big challenge for President Obama will be to maintain a rational and tactical public discussion in the midst of this severe downturn. The desire for culprits at times like this is strong.”
The “culprit” has been identified. In their desire to escape blame, government officials in Congress and elsewhere have almost unanimously used their access to the media to vilify banks and Wall Street while pretending they had no hand whatsoever in this debacle. Unfortunately they’ve been quite successful in the scapegoating. However, having established the narrative, they now have to attempt to reverse it because the public rage they’ve helped stoke may prevent them from doing what they think they need to do to turn the financial industry around.
The entire problem that the administration is now recognizing is one of their own making and another indication of their inexperience and lack of foresight. It’s one thing to demonize such industries when campaigning, it is, as they’re learning, an entirely different thing when you do it as the President of the United States. The administration now has to figure out how to reverse a narrative they helped build and establish. That should be interesting to watch.
There are plenty of good writers around, but there are only a few who cause me to pause during reading and think “Oh, how I wish I could write like that.”
Mark Steyn is in that group. Just about anything he writes is worth reading, and he is the best in the business at being funny and thought-provoking at the same time.
Occasionally, though, he captures the essence of an issue in a way no other current writer can. His current article at National Review, “The Brokest Generation“, is in that category. Go read it yourself, and then pass it along to the folks who are going to be paying for the folly of the Obama years (and the somewhat-lesser follies of the administrations that preceeded him).
It’s true irony that the chanting, swaying kids in the creepy Obama videos will be the ones who pay the highest price for Obama’s fumbling foolishness. Per Mark:
As Lord Keynes observed, “In the long run we’re all dead.” Well, most of us will be. But not you youngsters, not for a while. So we’ve figured it out: You’re the ultimate credit market, and the rest of us are all pre-approved!
The Bailout and the TARP and the Stimulus and the Multi-Trillion Budget and TARP 2 and Stimulus 2 and TARP And Stimulus Meet Frankenstein and the Wolf Man are like the old Saturday-morning cliffhanger serials your grandpa used to enjoy. But now he doesn’t have to grab his walker and totter down to the Rialto, because he can just switch on the news and every week there’s his plucky little hero Big Government facing the same old crisis: Why, there’s yet another exciting spending bill with twelve zeroes on the end, but unfortunately there seems to be some question about whether they have the votes to pass it. Oh, no! And then, just as the fate of another gazillion dollars of pork and waste hangs in the balance, Arlen Specter or one of those lady-senators from Maine dashes to the cliff edge and gives a helping hand, and phew, this week’s spendapalooza sails through. But don’t worry, there’ll be another exciting episode of Trillion-Buck Rogers of the 21st Century next week!
This is a connection we need to be making over and over again: when the mountain of federal debt finally collapses of its own weight, the younger generation will be hurt the worst. Most of the people who fomented the crisis will have long since passed on, or be comfortable in their retirement because of the assets they were able to accrue at taxpayer and lobbyist expense. They will have gotten what they wanted: time in the sun, running things, letting others pay them obeisance, getting respect they don’t really deserve. Either they are too stupid to realize what they are doing to the next couple of generations, or they are too mendacious to care. The sooner the younger generations learn the con job that has been perpetrated on them, the better.
Last night’s episode of 20/20 was one of the best I’ve ever seen. John Stossel took on several topics, such as taxpayer-funded bailouts, transportation, medicinal marijuana, universal pre-kindergarten and immigration. Many of the segments are based on and include footage from The Drew Carey Project from Reason TV. Stossel also interviews Drew Carey in some of the segments.
The they are six videos (five below the cut). The first one deals with bailouts. Stossel talks to 18 economists about why the “stimulus” was a bad idea. He asks House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer if debt got us into this recession, then why is creating more debt going to get us out? One economist says that one dollar taken out of the economy is one less dollar to be spent in the private sector.
The second video deals with transportation, and actually starts off in Atlanta (my hometown), and is based on this video from Reason TV. It highlights private toll roads built in Orange County, California, Paris, Chicago and Indiana.
This segment is on medicinal marijuana and Charlie Lynch and is based on this Reason TV video. Lynch owned a medicinal marijuana dispensary in California, which is legal under state law. He was arrested by DEA agents for helping sick people and is now awaiting sentencing, up to a hundred years in jail.
This is the segment on universal pre-kindergarten, a promise made by Barack Obama during his campaign. It’s based in part on this Reason TV video.
Here’s the segment on immigration, which is based on a Reason TV video. Stossel shows how the gate is useless because illegal immigrants still manage to get around it, either by climbing over it or cutting holes in it. Stossel talks to both Duncan Hunter and his son, Duncan Hunter, Jr., about why it is necessary. The younger Hunter asks Stossel, “What is it worth to the American people to not have another 9/11?” Stossel says the fence wouldn’t have stopped 9/11 (the 9/11 hijackers came in the country legally). Hunter says, “It may stop the next 9/11.” Gotta love the fear mongering.
Here’s the final segment of the episode. It talks about how easy it is to make it in American if you live within your means and is based on this Reason TV video.
China expresses some … um … “concern” about whether or not it will ever see its money back:
The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, expressed unusually blunt concern on Friday about the safety of China’s $1 trillion investment in American government debt, the world’s largest such holding, and urged the Obama administration to provide assurances that the securities would maintain their value in the face of a global financial crisis.
Speaking ahead of a meeting of finance ministers and bankers this weekend in London to lay the groundwork for next month’s G20 summit, Mr. Wen said he was “worried” about China’s holdings of United States Treasury bonds and other debt, and that China was watching economic developments in the United States closely.
“President Obama and his new government have adopted a series of measures to deal with the financial crisis. We have expectations as to the effects of these measures,” Mr. Wen said. “We have lent a huge amount of money to the U.S. Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am definitely a little worried.”
Just a little? There’s an old saying to the effect of “if you owe the bank $1 Million, then the bank owns you; if you owe the bank $1 Trillion, then you own the bank.” China’s feeling pretty nervous because it knows it can’t sell its holdings except at a tremendous loss — both from the normal discount expected, and from the fact that it is by far the largest mover in the market (e.g. what do you think would happen to Microsoft stock if Bill Gates started selling off?) — and it doesn’t see a whole lot coming out of Washington to instill confidence.
But there’s no need to fret PM Jiabao! Unnamed economists are here to save the day:
While economists dismissed the possibility of the United States defaulting on its obligations, they said China could face steep losses in the event of a sharp rise in United States interest rates or a plunge in the value of the dollar.
Whew! That was close. Nothing but a little market risk to worry about there, Jiabao. Default? Pffft … never gonna happen.
Back in the land called “reality” however, default is plays a bigger part since, aside from reneging on the debt, there are only three other ways for the government to pay for its spending binge: higher taxes, printing more money, or borrowing. Higher taxes impedes growth and leads to less revenue. Printing money leads to hyper-inflation. So, even though those two choices will be used to a certain extent, further borrowing is the only viable alternative to default. But who’s going to lend to us?
The bulk of China’s investment in the United States consists of bonds issued by the Treasury and government-sponsored enterprises and purchased by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, which is part of the People’s Bank of China … much of the Treasury debt China purchased in recent years carries a low interest rate, and would plunge in value if interest rates were to rise sharply in the United States. Some financial experts have warned that measures taken to combat the financial crisis — running large budget deficits and expanding the money supply — may eventually create price inflation, which would lead to higher interest rates.
This puts the Chinese government in a difficult position. The smaller the United States stimulus, the less its borrowing, which could help prevent interest rates from rising. But less government spending in the United States could also mean a slower recovery for the American economy and reduced American demand for Chinese goods.
It may just be the case that China’s best option is to support its investment by propping up its best customer with yet more loans. Unfortunately, that means that Washington will have little incentive to slow down spending (since it owns the bank). The nasty little cycle of borrowing > spending > inflation > rising interest rates > falling dollar, will continue necessitating even more borrowing. China, in turn, will have serious questions about the value of its investment, and the US will start having serious discussions about declaring a default.
In short, China’s not just “worried” about the current fiscal mess. It’s crapping its collectivist shorts.
President Obama and VP Biden are going to be watching you:
Obama and Biden both gave stern warnings yesterday about misuse of stimulus funds. “If we see money being misspent, we’re going to put a stop to it,” Obama told a gathering of state officials at the White House. How? Obama says “we will call it out and we will publicize it.” Biden, meanwhile, scolded: “If we don’t get this right, folks, this is the end of the opportunity to convince Congress that anything should go to the states.”
Of course, these were words spoken to representatives of states getting “stimulus” money.
Lost in the shuffle is the fact that there is no one to shout “BS” to the whole scheme and declare it all “misspent” money. A $787 billion dollar social spending scheme isn’t money “misspent?” Hah!
But other than that, I think Earl Devaney provides us with the ground truth about this upcoming spending debacle:
The chief watchdog for spending from the $787 billion stimulus package says it’s guaranteed there will be waste and fraud.
Earl Devaney, tapped by President Obama to track the giant spending plan, also said it will be at least a year before the government gets recovery.gov, the Web site the administration has touted as a key part of its transparency, up and running properly.
“I’m afraid that there may be a naive impression that given the amount of transparency and accountability called for by this act, no or little fraud will occur.
A “naive impression?”
Heh … nah, you don’t say?
The word “naive” seems to describe a lot of what is going on right now with the Obama administration.
Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, said this the other day about the possible effects of all of the spending the Obama administration was doing and planning:
“What you’re doing is buying into the notion that if we just print some more money that we don’t have, send it to different states — we’ll create jobs,” Sanford said. “If that’s the case, why isn’t Zimbabwe a rich place?… Why isn’t Zimbabwe just an incredibly prosperous place. ‘Cause they’re printing money they don’t have and sending it around to their different — I don’t know the towns in Zimbabwe but that same logic is being applied there with little effect.”
A little oversimplistic, but this is “sound bite nation” so you have to condense. In effect his point is true to the extent it goes, and the example is a good and valid one, since Zimbabwe is printing money as fast as it can add zeroes to its demonimations. By now, the hyper-inflation it is undergoing from doing so should be well known to people versed in current affairs.
Unless, of course, you want to make a racial thing out of it. Rep. James Clyburn, Democratic Majority Whip, reacts to Sanford’s lesson and example of Zimbabwe:
“For him to compare the president of this country to Mugabe. … It’s just beyond the pale,” said Clyburn, who has sparred with Sanford over the Republican’s refusal to accept all the state’s stimulus funding.
“I’m sure he would not say that, but how did he get to Zimbabwe? What took the man to Zimbabwe? Someone should ask him if that’s really the best comparison. … How can he compare this country’s situation to Zimbabwe?”
Of course the “how” is fairly simple – if what is being touted as a solution here and was touted as a solution there, then Zimbabwe should be in great economic shape right now. But Clyburn would rather make a racial thing out of it. Obviously Sanford could have used Wiemar Germany of the ’30s, but it isn’t as relevant today as the case of Zimbabwe. And, he could have also used Venezuela. But Venezuela isn’t quite the basket case Zimbabwe is. Nope, in terms of a current example of what might happen, in terms of hyper-inflation from artificially pumping up he money supply, Zimbabwe is as good as it gets.
“Rep. Clyburn always plays the race card,” shot back Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer, who said his boss has also compared the stimulus to failed government policies in Germany and Argentina. “This policy will result in hyper-infaltion. … [Clyburn] is ripping off the people he purports to represent.”
Round 2 to follow.
Barack Obama doesn’t have the votes to pass his $4 trillion budget:
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he has spoken to enough colleagues about several different provisions in the budget request to make him think Congress won’t pass it.
Conrad urged White House budget director Peter Orszag not to “draw lines in the sand” with lawmakers, most notably on Obama’s plan for a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon emissions.
“Anybody who thinks it will be easy to get the votes on the budget in the conditions that we face is smoking something,” Conrad said.
Conrad joined Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), the top Republican on the Budget Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in criticizing the administration’s cap-and-trade proposal for not doing enough to counterbalance increases in energy costs that will be felt by consumers and companies, especially those in energy states such as North Dakota.
Conrad said that it would be a “distant hope” to expect the climate change plan to pass unless it includes help for industries that would be hit hard by limits on carbon emission production.
That’s good news, though I don’t have much faith in Democrats holding the opposition.
Let’s face it, these policies will hurt the economy even in good times, so why try to pass them when the economy is already in shambles? It makes no sense.
A group of economists asked to assess the efforts of both Obama and Geithner were none too impressed:
U.S. President Barack Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner received failing grades for their efforts to revive the economy from participants in the latest Wall Street Journal forecasting survey.
The economists’ assessment stands in stark contrast with Mr. Obama’s popularity with the public, with a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll giving him a 60% approval rating. A majority of the 49 economists polled said they were dissatisfied with the administration’s economic policies.
On average, they gave the president a grade of 59 out of 100, and although there was a broad range of marks, 42% of respondents rated Mr. Obama below 60. Mr. Geithner received an average grade of 51. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke scored better, with an average 71.
The big criticism has to do with “overpromising and underdelivering”:
[E]conomists’ main criticism of the Obama team centered on delays in enacting key parts of plans to rescue banks. “They overpromised and underdelivered,” said Stephen Stanley of RBS Greenwich Capital. “Secretary Geithner scheduled a big speech and came out with just a vague blueprint. The uncertainty is hanging over everyone’s head.”
The Hill reports that lack of progress is starting to really concern some Democrats in Congress:
Members of Congress and old political hands say [Obama] needs to show substantial progress reviving the economy soon.
Some Democrats have started to worry that voters don’t and won’t understand the link between economic revival and Obama’s huge agenda, which includes saving the banking industry, ending home foreclosures, reforming healthcare and developing a national energy policy, among much else.
While lawmakers debate controversial proposals contained in the new president’s debut budget — cutting farm subsidies, raising taxes on charitable contributions, etc. — there is a growing sense that time is running out faster than expected.
Democrats from states racked by recession say Obama needs to produce an uptick by August or face unpleasant consequences. Others say that there is more time, but that voters need to see improvement by the middle of next year.
The most optimistic say Obama and Democrats in Congress will face a political backlash unless the economy improves by Election Day 2010.
Of course, as mentioned previously, it becomes increasingly clear that he, Geithner and others really don’t know what to do about all of this. And careful and objective analysis of the money promised in both the bailout and stimulus see the former not accomplishing the bailout hoped for and the latter not being at all properly targeted to stimulate the job creating, wealth producing private sector.
And Democrats are right – the sausage making legislative process is of little interest to most Americans, especially those in trouble. They want results and they want them now. He promised to fix it and now they are going to expect results. There was no reality in his promises so it is rather difficult to understand why the American public which elected him should suddenly understand the reality of the situation. He promised, they took him up on it, now he has to deliver.
That’s the downside of actually winning after making a raft of promises that reality won’t let you keep.
Alan Greenspan has a piece in the Wall Street Journal today which essentially casts him as the Pontius Pilate of the financial crisis. Or, to sum it up rather sucinctly, “it wasn’t my fault”. You’re welcome to read through it and agree or disagree. However, the imporant point I think that should be taken from the Greenspan piece are the last two paragraphs:
Any new regulations should improve the ability of financial institutions to effectively direct a nation’s savings into the most productive capital investments. Much regulation fails that test, and is often costly and counterproductive. Adequate capital and collateral requirements can address the weaknesses that the crisis has unearthed. Such requirements will not be overly intrusive, and thus will not interfere unduly in private-sector business decisions.
If we are to retain a dynamic world economy capable of producing prosperity and future sustainable growth, we cannot rely on governments to intermediate saving and investment flows. Our challenge in the months ahead will be to install a regulatory regime that will ensure responsible risk management on the part of financial institutions, while encouraging them to continue taking the risks necessary and inherent in any successful market economy.
Those words reminded me of the quote I saw in business columnist Tom Oliver’s piece today in the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” — F.A. Hayek
Any columnist who starts with a Hayek quote is guaranteed to get my attention. And I’ve come to enjoy Oliver’s columns. However, reviewing Greenspan’s advice and admonitions in those two paragraphs, juxtaposed against the simple and elegant truth of Hayek’s statement you find yourself back in the outback watching that big red kangaroo headed for a collision with the car. It is inevitable, there’s nothing you can do about it, they can’t or won’t hear your warnings and all you can do is watch – and cringe.
Frankly, as we watch the machinations of government and listen to their declarations, we have begun to understand that for the most part, those in charge of all of this haven’t a clue. As Oliver states:
Far from demonstrating the demise of free enterprise, this long-running, deepening recession is revealing the limitations of government.
Government, in its various yet powerful incarnations, has been offering one fix after another since August 2007.
The more the Fed and Treasury have tried, the less sure they seem and the more nervous the money makers have become.
It’s understandable that folks would look to the new administration for new ideas. So it’s harder than usual to acknowledge that the ideas are in fact pretty old and, having been tried, found wanting.
Whatever one may think about the so-called stimulus, it’s too easily deconstructed as pork and policy initiatives.
And if it’s still debatable whether to nationalize the financial industry, the move to nationalize health care, education and energy can hardly be disguised as economic recovery programs.
It is understandable that those who derive their power from government would use this recession as an excuse to further government’s reach. But they act as if government has been absent — as if they’ve been absent — from the role of regulator and legislator.
He’s precisely right – it wasn’t a problem with lack of regulation or lack of legislation. It was a lack of proper regulatory oversight and a willful decision by legislators to ignore the building crisis coupled with government distorting the market and actually incentivizing risk taking far beyond that which is prudent that led us here. And now that they have us in this position, all of them, Greenspan included, are engaged in a flurry of finger-pointing and name calling at every one but the right ones. This wasn’t a crisis which happened in just the last 6 months or 8 years. This one has been building for a while.
“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” — F.A. Hayek
We had Democrats in charge and then we had Republicans. Again and again.
Both endorsed and encouraged the subprime sleight-of-hand. Both appointed heads of the regulatory agencies that could’ve stopped the poison seeping through our banks’ balance sheets. Both allowed gamblers to hedge and swap derivatives on top of derivatives that no one can explain and that are proving far more debilitating than the debacle they were insuring against.
Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae became toxic assets of the government while doing the bidding of congressmen who now act like the piano players in a brothel.
The Federal Reserve proved to be anything but reserved, instead stoking a fire that burned us all.
These were not the result of idle hands of government, but rather deliberate deeds that created false markets with inflated credit while turning a blind eye to those who finance election results.
Oliver’s characterizations are dead on – and he’s nailed both the fed and the Congress. The most irritating thing to me about this whole mess, other than the obvious huge loss of wealth, is the success those who were responsible for writing the rules, laying out the playing field and calling the game are escaping both blame and punishment for what they’ve brought about. That toad Barney Frank having the chutzpa to talk about prosecuting those who were guilty of getting us in this mess still astounds me. If anyone should be undergoing such prosecution right now, it is he and numerous other congressmen and women, both past and present.
Oliver concludes as follows and I can’t help but say a hearty “amen” to what he has to say:
We periodically recoil in horror at government’s failure to protect foster children or care for veterans or the mentally ill. But then we turn around and assume government will perform better in areas more complicated.
Why does the failure of government so often lead so many to believe we need more government?
Like the hair of the dog for the alcoholic, it may calm the trembling hands for a moment but it inevitably leads to another spree and another hangover.
We’re headed into a “or worse” moment. No one in government is going to listen to Alan Greenspan’s admonitions or believe Tom Oliver’s brief accounting of the history of this crisis. Instead we’re going to see precisely the opposite happen – more regulation, more strings, more intrusion, more control. And, as Hayek said, we’ll again see “how little [men] really know about what they imagine they can design.”