Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People


Hacking Away At The Last Pillar

The siege against capitalism continues unabated. Yesterday, leaders of the 20 largest national economies reached a consensus that they needed to reel in unfettered free markets, which they all agreed was the cause of the world’s economic crisis. The medicine consists of further funding of the IMF (to the tune of an addition $1 Trillion) and an increased regulatory state.
crumbling-column

Setting aside differences in philosophy and national character, at least for now, the leaders agreed to make available more than $1 trillion in new lending to spur international growth. While leaving it to individual nations to enact, they promised tough new regulations aimed at banks and other financial institutions whose freewheeling activities sparked the crisis. And they vowed renewed support for trade and more help for the globe’s poorest countries.

“The world’s leaders have responded today with an unprecedented set of comprehensive and coordinated actions,” Obama said, in the spotlight on his first overseas trip as president. “Faced with similar global economic challenges in the past, the world was slow to act, and people paid an enormous price. . . . Today, we have learned the lessons of history.”

For some reason, the bulk of the reporting on the G-20 conference outcome is limited to describing how wonderful everyone feels about the loose agreements, and how industrious they all were to come to terms with one another. Very little press has been devoted to the actual agreements. The media seem to be under the collective impression that the most important aspect of these meetings is the conduct of the diplomacy. They could not be more wrong:

FINANCIAL market “cowboys” who wreaked havoc on the world economy will be brought undone by the G20 agreement, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says.

Mr Rudd says the $US1 trillion ($A1.4 trillion) deal agreed on at the G20 summit in London, will benefit “tradies”, young people and small business with real commitments against real timelines.

“Today’s agreement begins to crack down on the sort of cowboys in global financial markets that have brought global markets undone with real impacts for jobs everywhere,” Mr Rudd told reporters at the conclusion of the summit overnight.

The summit has agreed to a restructure of the financial regulatory system, reform of and a trebling of funding for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to $US750 billion ($A1.08 trillion), an extension until the end of next year of a ban on nations introducing trade protection measures, a curb of excessive executive payouts and agreement to co-ordinate further economic stimulus.

Make no mistake. What the G-20 leaders (as stated by PM Rudd above) are saying to world is that none of this would have happened if they had been in charge. “Financial market cowboys” (meaning US and UK bankers), the faces of capitalism, are entirely to blame for the woes of the world. If only there had been more government involvement, according to this theory, then the financial crisis would have been averted or severely curtailed. Accordingly, the G-20 have decided that the way to fix this mass is to assert greater control over the world economy. The immediate targets of this new world order? Tax havens of course:

Switzerland, Singapore, the Cayman Islands, Monaco, Luxembourg and Hong Kong are among 45 territories blacklisted on Thursday by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and now threatened with punitive financial retaliation for their banking secrecy.

Among the sanctions being considered by the G20 are the scrapping of tax treaty arrangements, imposing additional taxes on companies that operate in non-compliant countries, and tougher disclosure requirements for individuals and businesses that use shelters.

[...]

Illegal tax evasion through offshore shelters has been a long-standing irritation for Gordon Brown, President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. An estimated $7 trillion of assets are held offshore and, according to pressure group Tax Justice Network, developed countries lose $180bn a year in evaded taxes.

Under the OECD definition, countries will be considered non-compliant if they have less than 12 bi-lateral agreements to exchange tax information with foreign governments on request. “Authorities should have access to the information to effectively crack down on tax evasion,” Andrew Watt, director at law firm Alvarez & Marsal Taxand, said.

Jeffrey Owens, director of the OECD’s centre for tax policy said: “This is the major breakthrough we have been trying to get for 13 years. If you intend to evade tax through offshore bases, you will think hard about it now you know tax authorities can trace you.”

[...]

Mr Sarkozy added: “Sixty percent of hedge funds are registered in tax havens. Putting hedge funds under supervision isn’t going to generate jobs in the textile industry. But we have to put behind us the madness of this time of total deregulation.”

The reactions of Owens and Sarkozy are like being annoyingly puzzled at why the whipping boy continues to move, seeking to avoid the lash.

Clearly the aim here is not at fixing anything other than the ability of wealthy nations to collect taxes. Small countries typically designated as “tax havens” tend to have one thing in common: they have no other means of competing in the world market place other than in the area of business taxation. If the economies of these countries were all dependent upon growing and selling corn, then the G-20 actions would be met with a much different response. Instead, companies that wish to minimize their tax burden, so that they may instead fund R&D, expand (create jobs), or re-invest, are treated as outlaws, unworthy of little more than scorn. And the small countries that have been willing to host these companies as a means of boosting their own economies, are labeled pariahs to be sanctioned by the wealthiest nations in the world. The message: “Don’t muscle in on our territory. That’s our tax money and we’re here to collect.”

In addition to punishing tax havens, the G-20 decided that the favorite whipping boys of statists needed to be better restrained so as to prevent their squirming:

Leaders agreed to craft tighter controls over hedge funds and establish more rigorous regulations to prevent the buildup of toxic assets that poisoned the U.S. financial system in and spread overseas.

[...]

The leaders agreed to set benchmarks for executive pay and make accounting standards more uniform across borders. Most would be drafted by a new Financial Stability Board, where central bankers, regulators and finance ministers from the more than 20 nations represented at the summit will eventually hash out the details.

Credit agencies — whose top-notch ratings of instruments linked to bad U.S. subprime mortgages gave false indications of their relatively safety — would be subjected to new oversight and regulations. But there was no call for a global regulator that could overrule decisions made by individual countries.

While I’m glad to see the ratings agencies (whom have inexplicably been absent from public criticism and ire) taking their turn at the post, everyone should be dismayed at what these sorts of agreements portend. The collective effort to rein in “cowboy capitalism” is little more than a barely disguised effort to place the European bit in the mouth of American (and, to a lesser extent, British) mouth. Business decisions are no longer to be made in the interests of the shareholders, but in favor of “public good.” What constitutes the “public good” will be determined by the special interests who exact the most influence upon, and best line the pockets of, the political forces in charge. In short, consumers no longer rule the market place; bureaucrats do.

Fallen pillar

Fallen pillar


As with all movements based on collective will, such as that which the G-20 has furthered, an unfettered free market is featured as the main culprit. America is widely considered to be an economic jungle where the capitalist beast roams freely, devouring the innocent and maiming cautious outsiders. Ironically, Leviathan himself has identified capitalism as an unrestrained beast in need of controlling. Yet, we have nothing like an uncontrolled free market here. It only appears that way because the remainder of the world has cloaked their industries in thick blankets of protectionism and shackled their businesses with an alarming array of bureaucratic chains. Comparatively, America does look like a free market jungle.

But therein lies the problem. As the Washington Post stated it:

Along with declarations of optimism came the recognition of at least a temporary shift in attitude away from two decades of intense reliance on free trade, deregulation and market-knows-best policies that fueled stunning growth across the planet.

Brown — the leader of a country closely associated with that philosophy — declared “the Washington Consensus” over, using a term that recognizes the American roots of an economic system seen by many in the world as unfair and unhealthy.

As far from a pure free market as we are, it is our relative distance from the nanny-statism of Europe and beyond that props up the economies of the world. That stunning growth was made possible precisely because of what the rest of the world refers to as “cowboy capitalism” and they were all happy to join in the ride. But now that woe times betide us, thanks primarily to government meddling (e.g. CRA, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Fed policy, etc.), the world is ready to chop down the last pillar of capitalism, and assert government control over everything. With that final support gone, the capitalist beast will be brought to heel, confined to the zoo where it will live its remaining days as little more than a novelty. Unfortunately, it will take its wealth producing powers with it.

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Russia’s New Found “Comrade”

A couple of paragraphs from a story about Obama and Russia’s Medvedev which seem pretty telling to me:

Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev hailed Barack Obama as “my new comrade” Thursday after their first face-to-face talks, saying the US president “can listen” — even if little progress was made on substance.

The Russian president contrasted Obama as “totally different” to his predecessor George W. Bush, whom he blamed for the “mistake” of US missile shield plans fiercely opposed by Moscow.

Of course many on the right are making a big, if sarcastic, deal about Medvedev calling Obama “comrade”. To many that seems more than appropriate. However, there’s a lot of diplospeak in this which seems key.

First, although not much of substance was accomplished, note the Medvedev says that unlike Bush, Obama “can listen”. In diplospeak, that means he thinks he can roll Obama, while Bush, not so much.

Note too that it appears that Obama has caved on the missile defense. In his desire to reduce nuclear stockpiles, he’s given up something which our allies such as Poland and the Czech Republic were keen for in order to see warheads dropped from 2,200 to 1,500. That’s a laughably cheap price for Russia to pay to kill the missile defense they opposed so adamantly.

Yup, after a capitulation like that, I’d be clapping Obama on the back and hailing him as my comrade too, if I were Medvedev.

Nothing, apparently was mentioned about Russia’s plan to rearm its military, its pending sale of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran or it’s bluntly worded warning about Georgia:

Russia sent a strong warning to the United States Thursday about supporting Georgia in the U.S. ally’s efforts to rebuild its military following last year’s war.

The Foreign Ministry said helping arm Georgia would be “extremely dangerous” and would amount to “nothing but the encouragement of the aggressor.” 

Nope, apparently Obama just listened. That’s a comrade any Russian could love.

~McQ

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Obama’s Budget Blueprint Passes In Congress

Yeah, yeah, I know, you’re tired of “budget talk”. Well too bad – this is extremely important stuff. It’s not just about the amount of money, which is monstrous, but the agenda it puts into place:

Congressional Democrats overwhelmingly embraced President Obama’s ambitious and expensive agenda for the nation yesterday, endorsing a $3.5 trillion spending plan that sets the stage for the president to pursue his most far-reaching priorities.

Voting along party lines, the House and Senate approved budget blueprints that would trim Obama’s spending proposals for the fiscal year that begins in October and curtail his plans to cut taxes. The blueprints, however, would permit work to begin on the central goals of Obama’s presidency: an expansion of health-care coverage for the uninsured, more money for college loans and a cap-and-trade system to reduce gases that contribute to global warming.

These are the paving stones for the road to hell and they’ve now been authorized by the Congress. Of course this is just the blueprint. The authorization of the funds will come in separate appropriation bills. And you had better believe Democrats are going to try to use every procedural trick in the book to ease their passage.

Just to leave you with the appropriate chill up your back, I leave you with an example of what is to come:

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) called cap-and-trade “the most significant revenue-generating proposal of our time,” and said it would be difficult to pass without reconciliation because Democrats would be forced to accommodate a handful of Republicans as they did in the debate over the president’s stimulus package.

And when it comes to “revenue-generating”, the Democrats want nothing standing in their way, especially a few Republicans.  The third wave of liberalism (New Deal, Great Society and now the Raw Deal) is afoot.

~McQ

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Do Habeas Hearings Violate the Geneva Conventions?

Ed Morrissey highlights an order of a U.S. District Court regarding detainees at Bagram AFB:

A federal judge ruled on Thursday that prisoners in the war on terror can use U.S. civilian courts to challenge their detention at a military air base in Afghanistan.

U.S. District Judge John Bates turned down the United States’ motion to deny the right to three foreign detainees at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have the right to challenge their detention in court. But the government had argued that it did not apply to those in Afghanistan.

Bates said the cases were essentially the same and he quoted the Supreme Court ruling repeatedly in his judgment and applied the test created by it to each detainee. It is the first time a federal judge has applied the ruling to detainees in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, I think Bates is correct here because of the ruling in Boumediene. As I pointed out in February:

Similarly, extending habeas corpus rights to prisoners detained on the battlefield is an exercise in futility. Of course, that ship sailed with the ruling in Boumediene v. Bush. I’m not sure what argument the government could make that any prisoners under the control of the U.S., regardless of where they are being held, are not entitled to some sort of habeas proceeding. And since the very procedures deemed constitutionally valid by the Supreme Court in Hamdi were struck down as inadequate in Boumediene, I don’t know what options are actually left to the Obama administration other than the unsavory prospect of field executions.

Barring a contrary ruling from the Supreme Court, I think this most recent case proves the point.

But, Ed Morrissey seems to think the Bates’ decision does much more. Where he (reasonably) finds that the foregoing is an unconstitutional interjection of the judiciary into matters delegated to the Executive, Ed also seems to think that Bates’ order violates the Geneva Conventions (his bolding applied):

Not only does this violate the separation of powers in the Constitution, it actually violates the Geneva Convention. Article 84 states clearly that prisoners of any stripe shall not get tried in civil courts:

A prisoner of war shall be tried only by a military court, unless the existing laws of the Detaining Power expressly permit the civil courts to try a member of the armed forces of the Detaining Power in respect of the particular offence alleged to have been committed by the prisoner of war.

In no circumstances whatever shall a prisoner of war be tried by a court of any kind which does not offer the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality as generally recognized, and, in particular, the procedure of which does not afford the accused the rights and means of defence provided for in Article 105.

We do not try our military personnel in civil court for offenses committed in the service. Therefore, we do not have the right to try prisoners in our civil courts, either.

There are a few problems with that conclusion:

(1) The detainees are not being tried. They’re challenging their detention. Another way of putting it is that they’re the plaintiffs in such an action (habeas hearing) as opposed to the defendants (as in a trial).

(2) Civilian courts may be used under the GC where the crimes/offenses alleged are already illegal (i.e. no a bill attainder or ex post facto law) and the court procedures provide the minimum guarantees set forth in the GC (this is spelled out in the rest of Ed’s Article 84 excerpt starting with “unless”).

(3) The Boumediene decision pretty much made this ruling necessary since the SCOTUS designated anywhere under U.S. control as being “U.S. territory”, with a few exceptions. An active battlefield is one of them IIRC and the judge may have decided that Bagram AFB doesn’t qualify.

In fact, on that last point, Judge Bates specifically noted that:

… non-Afghan detainees captured outside the country and moved to Bagram for a lengthy detention should have access to the courts to prevent the United States from being able to “move detainees physically beyond the reach of the Constitution and detain them indefinitely.”

As Boumediene is written, I think Bates got it exactly right. I do think that the entire line of reasoning and case law is incorrect from both a policy and constitutional basis, but Judge Bates is required to follow Supreme Court precedent. That his ruling serves as a perfect example how reductio absurdum can happen in real life doesn’t make him wrong.

Furthermore, I don’t see how allowing detainees to challenge their detention could possibly violate the Geneva Conventions. Again, that does not mean detainees should be afforded such rights, just that such a grant does not in any way run counter to either the letter or spirit of those treaties.

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The Republican Alternative Budget

It can be summed up in one sentence: They still don’t get it.

Tax cuts are great, but they’re not real tax cuts unless there’s a commensurate cut in spending. If there’s no cut in spending, they’re simply taxes which are being deferred. And that is precisely what the Republicans offer in their alternative. Long on tax cuts and long on spending. Their only claim to fame is they don’t spend as much as the Obama budget. Well, you’d have to be insane to spend as much as the Obama budget, but claiming that your plan is better because you spend less isn’t much of a recommendation.

For instance:

Discretionary Spending. The budget gives priority to the Federal Government’s most important obligations, national defense and veterans’ benefits. All other appropriated spending is level-funded for fiscal years 2010-14, and then increased at a moderate rate through 2019. The final allocation of these and other amounts will be determined by the Committee on Appropriations.

As long as we’re running a deficit, we can’t afford “increased spending” even at a “moderate rate”. What part of that can’t these people seem to get through their heads? Of course, that means they have to bring the bad news to the people that spending for government provided goodies isn’t going to go up, and, in fact, may go down. And the people haven’t exactly been kind to those who do so. Talking about it is one thing, but unfortunately actually doing it is detrimental to a politician’s career. So their cowardice is understandable if still unacceptable (given their rhetoric)

Mandatory Spending. Total mandatory spending increases by an average of 3.9 percent per year for the next 10 years. This is slightly slower growth than projected in the Congressional Budget Office baseline and the Obama/Democratic budget. It provides for a sustainable growth rate to assure the viability of these programs in the future.

Here is the budget killer – mandatory spending. And what to the Republicans propose? Growing it at almost 4% a year. The inflation rate is what? Well, even now, it certainly isn’t 4%. And while it may rise, you can’t assume that. So this does precisely what they claim their budget does:

To Control the Nation’s Debts. It halts the borrow-and-spend philosophy that brought about today’s economic problems, and puts a stop to heaping ever-growing debts on future generations.

It does not end the “borrow-and-spend philosophy” at all. It merely slows the rate of borrow-and-spend. The claim is nonsense on a stick.

And to cap it all off, they buy into the premise of some sort of universal or nationalized health care.

To Fulfill the Mission of Health and Retirement Security. The budget reforms the health care marketplace by making quality coverage affordable and accessible for every American regardless of pre-existing health conditions. It reinforces the decision-making of patients and their doctors, not government bureaucrats; and it reforms Medicare and Medicaid to make them sustainable. The budget also advances the cause of strengthening Social Security.

So instead of buttressing and supporting the concept of private health care and less government intrusion, the Republicans again commit to the concept of government involvement, but just not at the level of the Democrats. And they also want us to believe this isn’t going to cost much as well.

Disappointing is a mild word for what I see in their proposals. They’re again Democrat lite, buying into all the programs just claiming theirs doesn’t spend as much, and again proposing tax deferral as “tax cuts”, completely ignoring the need to cut spending to make those deferrals actual and permanent cuts.

No wonder they put it out on April 1st.

~McQ

[My latest Examiner.com article]

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Stiglitz Calls Geithner Plan “Ersatz Capitalism”

A number of economists, including Paul Krugman, have panned Timothy Geithner’s plan to recapitalize banks by buying toxic assets in a complex and highly leveraged way that puts the taxpayer’s dollars at risk.

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel economist, has piled on. In fact, his is probably the most damning opinion I’ve seen. Stiglitz says that first of all, Geithner has analyzed the problem incorrectly. Geithner keeps telling us it is a “liquidity” problem. Stiglitz says “poppycock”:

The main problem is not a lack of liquidity. If it were, then a far simpler program would work: just provide the funds without loan guarantees. The real issue is that the banks made bad loans in a bubble and were highly leveraged. They have lost their capital, and this capital has to be replaced.

What he means is their “capital”, or assets are in worthless loans. Yes that’s right – worthless. So, as he points out, paying “fair market value” for these assets won’t work, will it? They’re worthless.

So what does Geithner propose?

Only by overpaying for the assets will the banks be adequately recapitalized. But overpaying for the assets simply shifts the losses to the government. In other words, the Geithner plan works only if and when the taxpayer loses big time.

Stiglitz explains the proposed process very well, demonstrating it fairly simple and straightforward examples how the taxpayer takes the majority of the risk, and, given the nature off the “assets”, will absorb the majority of the losses.

But Americans are likely to lose even more than these calculations suggest, because of an effect called adverse selection. The banks get to choose the loans and securities that they want to sell. They will want to sell the worst assets, and especially the assets that they think the market overestimates (and thus is willing to pay too much for).

But the market is likely to recognize this, which will drive down the price that it is willing to pay. Only the government’s picking up enough of the losses overcomes this “adverse selection” effect. With the government absorbing the losses, the market doesn’t care if the banks are “cheating” them by selling their lousiest assets, because the government bears the cost.

That is a process driven problem. The Geithner process guarantees the outcome because that is the most likely outcome, banks not being stupid and with the government bearing the cost.

Bottom line – taxpayers are going to get hosed and hosed good.

Stiglitz provides an interesting alternative which gives you an idea of how poorly he regards Geithner’s plan:

Some Americans are afraid that the government might temporarily “nationalize” the banks, but that option would be preferable to the Geithner plan. After all, the F.D.I.C. has taken control of failing banks before, and done it well.

Given only those two option, I’d say Stiglitz has a point.

Of course, the argument we’ve made since day one is we ought to let them go bust, get it over with and begin the recovery. That’s the same argument we made concerning GM and Chrysler.

Instead we’ve gotten these insane plans driven by the administration which has thrown literally trillions of good dollars after bad – and to no apparent avail.

This madness has got to stop.

~McQ

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“For anyone who questions why the President has offered this plan, these pledges will be the answer.”

Obama’s army of cultists is very hard at work.

Like (I assume) most other news junkies who closely followed the election, I am still receiving emails from Obama’s political action people. Much of it is aimed at getting the recipients to participate in the “Organizing for America” politicking. It has always seemed a little creepy to me because the election is over. I mean, why the endless campaign unless the real purpose is to propagandize the voters? But I also figured that my biases made it seem worse than it really is. That is, until viewing this video:

Neo-neocon provides an excellent analysis of why this sort of White House driven organizing just seems wrong. For example, she notes the rather troublesome fact that the Obama administration intends for people to simply pledge blind support to his agenda:

Some of the most disturbing things about this video are its vagueness, its focus on Obama himself in what I can only call his cult of personality, and its use of the word “pledge” (at minute :56, note the words, under “The Pledge” and next to a check box, “I support President Obama’s bold plan….”)

The vagueness comes from the fact that whatever people are pledging to support is never described in any detail whatsoever. The petition, or pledge sheet, or loyalty oath, or whatever you want to call it, is very short. It appears that each policy area—energy, health care, education—has but a single sentence describing it.

Think about this for a moment: people are blindly pledging loyalty to policies about which they know virtually nothing except the fact that Obama is behind them, and he says it’s for our own good.

Moreover, reasonable dissent from Obama’s agenda is not possible according to the training video:

The trainer gives only one reason that “the establishment in Washington” would oppose this: opposition to change. Never mind principled opposition; there is no such thing where Obama is concerned. Never mind the cost of these policies in a recession.

Never mind; just sign on the dotted line. And is anyone else as perturbed as I am by this statement: For anyone who questions why the President has offered this plan, these pledges will be the answer.

I think that definitely qualifies as creepy, biases or not.

[HT: Bird Dog]

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Our Watchdog Compliant Media

Good to know that the American press is so ready and capable of holding our elected officials accountable in these trying times:

0952 Jeff McCallister from Time magazine tells the BBC: [Obama's] a rock star, he has a gorgeous wife, he is charismatic, young and vital. It’s echoes of the Kennedys in early 1961. It’s hard for me to imagine even if he doesn’t fix the world economy in a day that this is going to go badly for him in political terms in the US or elsewhere.

Just imagine what he would have said if Time magazine were a biased publication!

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Old QandO